UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. -- A storybook high school career, capped by a trip to the annual Big 33 game, put Richie Anderson just where he wanted to be -- at a tailback-oriented football school such as Penn State.
Having spent his freshman year studying under Blair Thomas -- picked second in the recent NFL draft by the New York Jets -- Anderson, a graduate of Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Md., now has to prove he belongs there.
Anderson ran for 2,062 yards in his senior season at Sherwood and was the featured back for the Maryland team in last summer's Big 33 All-Star game against the Pennsylvania all-stars.
But his first year at Penn State ended with just 77 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries. Thomas, who spent the 1988 season sidelined with a knee injury, returned -- and dominated.
Anderson also returned seven kickoffs for an average of 22.3 yards. His most productive game came at the Carrier Dome in a 34-12 victory over Syracuse. He gained 44 yards on five carries, including a run of 35 yards, his longest of the season.
"It's a major transition for anybody," Anderson said last month after playing in Penn State's annual Blue-White scrimmage, which ends spring practice. "They've got a work ethic here that's extremely tough. With a year under Blair I learned a lot of things. His work ethic has just rubbed off. I learned toughness, very much toughness. Right now I'm just trying to develop good habits. If I work hard, the good things are going to happen."
Anderson keyed the Blue's 20-17 victory with touchdown catches of 32 and 31 yards; he rushed 10 times for 29 yards.
"I've always been able to catch the ball, and I consider myself a good receiver," Anderson said. "I don't think I got out of the running game what I thought I would, but I did with the passing game."
Anderson will have to battle for playing time at tailback next fall with senior Leroy Thompson and speedy underclassmen Gerry Collins and Bobby Samuels. Thompson, who played fullback last season, is the leading candidate.
Collins, younger brother of the Washington Redskins' top pick Andre Collins, has quickness, but he lacks size, at 5 feet 8 and 190 pounds. Samuels has been slowed his entire career by a foot injury.
Anderson has size (6-2, 207) and speed (4.4-second clocking in the 40-yard dash) in his favor. But Penn State Coach Joe Paterno says Anderson still has to prove himself.
"I think Richie Anderson is an outstanding prospect," Paterno said. "He's got the quality kids in front of him in Leroy and Gerry Collins. But he's got to make a place for himself on this team. He's got great speed, and he's a big kid. We've just got to keep him healthy."
Paterno demands versatility in his tailbacks. The one who gets the most playing time may not be only the best runner and receiver but, more important, the best blocker. Paterno has had trouble in recent seasons getting backs to improve blocking skills.
"I try to be the best at all three things," Anderson said. "I think my progress has been okay as far as running and receiving. I have to work a little harder on pass protection."
Back spasms nagged Anderson in spring practice. Although minor, the most severe injury in his football career has been hard to handle.
"I think it was a tough spring with the injuries," said Anderson, who had his back X-rayed. "Right now it's just a spasm thing. They were looking for a bone break. It was a nagging injury that happened in the Alabama game."
Anderson said he will spend the offseason in rehabilitation. Then it will be on to battling for a spot in the starting lineup.
"I don't place myself," he said. "We're all tailbacks competing for a position and we're all good friends. We all want to make each other better. I've just got to do the best I can."