Pull it. Punch it. Move full speed and put a helmet on it. This year, Howard University senior tailback James (J.J.) Carpenter is daring opposing defenders to knock the football from his grasp.

Carpenter finished as Howard's leading rusher with 825 yards and six touchdowns as the Bison went 8-3 last season. But that was hardly enough for Carpenter, of whom much has been expected since he was recruited out of Oklahoma City by former coach Willie Jeffries.

"I have mixed emotions about last year," said Carpenter, who is a solidly built 5 feet 11, 200 pounds. "I am glad the team did better than most people thought we would, but there were bad times -- like the fact I dropped the ball too many times."

Much of last season, Carpenter played despite a painful turf toe injury. In the second half, he suffered a jammed thumb.

Throughout the offseason, Carpenter worked with Howard assistant coach Rubin Carter to strengthen his hands and forearms.

"I spent the offseason trying to work on my weaknesses," said Carpenter, who should also get some help this season from the blocking of 6-foot, 215-pound sophomore fullback Ryan Heathcock. "I'm confident I won't fumble like I did last year. I'm stronger and I will be more aware of things when I carry the ball. And I've learned that I have to keep two hands on it at all times."

The injuries and the fumbles were just more in a series of disappointments for Carpenter at Howard. In his first two seasons, he rarely played. In his first season, then-senior Harvey Reed rushed for a school-record 1,512 yards. In his second season, Fred Killings rushed for 1,452 yards.

"He really had not played for two years because he had Harvey Reed and Fred Killings in front of him," said Howard Coach Steve Wilson. "I don't care who you are, if you don't play for that long, it takes a while to get back."

Carpenter was willing to settle for personal goals last year that did not include breaking school records. "I wanted to get 1,000 yards rushing, and I probably fumbled away 200 yards," said Carpenter. "That would have been 1,000 right there."

Much of Howard's success last year was due to its defense, which ranked No. 1 in Division I-AA. The offense often sputtered, which led to Carpenter and quarterback Donald Carr feeling pressured to make Howard's new pro-style offense work.

"I think {Carr} and I tried to do too much, too soon, in our offense," said Carpenter. " . . . I tried to get every extra yard. Sometimes it wasn't there and that's when I had some of my fumbles. What I learned is that sometimes, when it's not there, you have to go down, give up a yard, and hang on to the ball."

Wilson enters Sunday's opener at the Los Angeles Coliseum against Southern University saying Carpenter may be the key difference in the Bison offense. "J.J. is an explosive runner," he said. "Last year, he was hurt and could only make cuts off one leg. Sometimes, he would just fall down because of it. This year, he is totally healthy. I am going to just keep giving him the ball and smile."

Bison Notes: More than 40,000 are expected Sunday for the second annual L.A. Football Classic. . . . Freshman wide receiver Gary Harrell continues to be the most impressive Bison newcomer. He will return punts and kickoffs. "We call him 'The Flea' and when people see him, they will know why," said Wilson.