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Kevin Faulk could have come to the University of Florida and just carried the football. But when one of the most sought-after recruits in Louisiana history chose to stay home, he committed to carry much, much more.

Handed the hopes of virtually the entire bayou, Faulk is running the once-mighty Louisiana State program back to the top of college football.

"I was thinking I was going to try and bring the magic back, and try to stay close to home," Faulk said of his decision. "I wanted to bring that magic back to this state."

Today, Faulk and No.

12 LSU (4-0 overall, 2-0 SEC) face their biggest challenge _ and biggest opportunity _ against No.

1 Florida (5-0, 3-0) at noon at Florida Field in Gainesville.

Faulk, a true sophomore who did not play against Florida last year because of a thigh injury, will be making his Florida debut after having shunned the Gators for his hometown university.

"He's a sensational back, no question about it," Florida coach Steve Spurrier said. "He's run for a bunch of yards, returning punts and returning kicks. But we realize that everybody can't come to Florida."

Faulk was one of the most pursued recruits in the country two years ago, an option quarterback who rushed for 4,877 yards and 62 TDs at Carencro High School.

His open-field stutter-step moves leave defensive backs frozen. But at 5-foot-10, 192 pounds, Faulk also is deceptively strong running through the line of scrimmage.

The nation's best programs courted Faulk, who visited Notre Dame, Florida, Florida State and Miami. But Faulk turned them all down, accepting instead an offer from unranked LSU and its first-year Yankee coach, Gerry DiNardo.

Faulk also wanted to stay close to his girlfriend, Latisha Clark, and their daughter, Tanasha. Today, Faulk also has an infant son, Kevin.

"All five schools had basically the same thing to offer," said Faulk, who is no relation to Indianapolis Colts star Marshall Faulk, also from Louisiana. "They all had great athletic programs, great academic programs."

But perhaps none had more at stake than LSU.

When Faulk signed his letter of intent, it was televised in Louisiana. Fans tailgated. And DiNardo, who admittedly was not the first choice for the LSU job, celebrated.

"I think it was critical and significant when Kevin decided to come to LSU," said DiNardo, who spent four years at SEC rival Vanderbilt before coming to LSU. "Obviously, he was a national name and an in-state guy that everybody knew. He was leaning toward LSU when Curley (Hallman) was here, so maybe he was ours to lose, but you could still lose him.

"But when he did commit, I think it said a lot to all the other kids we were recruiting: "Here's a guy who can go anywhere he wants in the country, and he's going to stay with LSU and try to make it work. Why don't I do the same?'


Faulk's impact was immediate and immense.

In his first start as a true freshman, Faulk rushed for 171 yards in a win over Mississippi State. For the season, he tallied 852 yards, including four 100-yard games, and was named the SEC Offensive Freshman of the Year.

Faulk also led the Tigers to their first bowl victory since 1987 when he rushed for an Independence Bowl record 234 yards in a 45-26 victory over Michigan State.

And LSU had its first winning season in seven years: 7-4-1.

But the fairy tale of Faulk's freshman season gave way in February, when he was involved in a fight outside a bar in his hometown. He was cited with four misdemeanor charges, including resisting arrest and battery on a police officer. One of the officers was hospitalized with broken foot bones.

DiNardo suspended Faulk for the 1996 season opener. But the charges against Faulk were dropped after he agreed to do community service during weekends and holidays, riding with the officers involved in the incident and speaking at schools.

DiNardo lifted the suspension, saying that in apologizing to the officers, Faulk showed respect where he once had shown disrespect.

Faulk promptly ran for a school-record 246 yards in a 35-34 comeback win over Houston. His 376 all-purpose yards _ he also catches passes and returns kicks and punts _ were the second-best total in SEC history.

"He can be as good as anyone playing the game because he combines the physical and the intangible," DiNardo said. "I knew it was important to sign Kevin, but I have to admit, I didn't know how important it was until after he signed. I think I'm still realizing how much of a key he is."

Meet Kevin Faulk

AGE: 20.

HEIGHT: 5-10.

WEIGHT: 192.

1996 STATS: Faulk is second in the SEC and seventh in the nation in all-purpose rushing with 178.8 yards per game. He is third in the SEC and 12th in the nation in rushing with 128.3 yards per game. He has six touchdowns, five rushing and one on a 78-yard punt return.