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MICHIGAN GLAD PUNTER FIBBED.

Byline: Kevin Acee and Eric Noland / Daily News Staff Writers

As has been widely chronicled, five Washington State regulars stumbled onto the team without the benefit of scholarships - highly unusual for a major program.

Michigan can't match the numbers, but neither is it exempt from the concept.

Jason Vinson, who will punt for the Wolverines Thursday in the Rose Bowl, was a walk-on nearly three years ago. He had spent his freshman year at Michigan sitting in the stands and boasting to friends that he could punt better than any of those stiffs out on the field. Then he talked his way into a tryout by neglecting to reveal an important piece of information: Vinson punted in high school in Troy, Mich., but he was second string.

Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr admits that if he had known that fact, he would never have agreed to a tryout. Which would have been Michigan's loss - Vinson averaged 38.9 yards in 52 punts this season, had none blocked, and was named second team All-Big Ten by the conference's coaches.

In 1995, Vinson was just another in a mob of kids seeking annually to kick for Michigan.

``At first, they try to scare away guys who might not work hard,'' he said. ``That way, the guys who stay will work.''

Still, wasn't it a bit daunting to try to hook on with a prominent program that has 85 athletes under scholarship? ``They didn't say I would never play, but they said it would be very, very hard,'' Vinson said. ``I'm kind of hard-headed, so it gave me some incentive.''

Another walk-on, Eric Mayes, started at inside linebacker before injuring a knee early in the season.

No favorites: One knock on quarterback Ryan Leaf last season was that he played favorites, throwing to Chad Carpenter almost twice as often as he did any other receiver. Well, Carpenter graduated, and the Fab Five took his place.

The so-called Fab Five, which lines up four at a time in the Cougars' offensive set, consists of seniors Kevin McKenzie (50 catches for 833 yards and 10 touchdowns), Chris Jackson (49-916, 11), Shawn Tims (35-497) and Shawn McWashington (31-556, 3), and junior Nian Taylor (21-524, 6). Asked to name his favorite receiver Saturday, Leaf promptly responded, ``No. 9, No. 8, No. 81, No. 45 and No. 82.''

Little big man: If you're familiar with his stats, your first thought when you see Washington State linebacker Steve Gleason is, ``No way.''

He is listed (generously) as 5-foot-11 and 214 pounds. And the sophomore was the fifth-leading tackler in the Pacific-10 Conference this season with 91 total stops.

``You've got to be really confident,'' Gleason, who hit .286 for the Washington State baseball team last season, said of being a diminutive linebacker. ``Just like any other sport, this game is more mental than physical. It's not how big you are when you hit, it's how hard you bring it.''

Getting acclimated: Michigan's players, having been in Southern California for a little more than a week, say they are starting to feel comfortable in these strange surroundings.

Said offensive tackle Jon Jansen, one of the captains: ``We've had time out here now to get used to the time difference, get used to the weather, get used to the light.''

Light? Why, of course. During late autumn and winter in the upper Midwest, the sun tends to be little more than a rumor.

Cool guys: Some Washington State players complained (with smiles on their faces) that the near-60 degree temperature at the Coliseum Saturday was too hot. And after practice, coach Mike Price jokingly complained about how when Washington State brings recruits to Pullman, Wash., in January, it is usually snowing.

The low in Pullman Saturday was in the teens and the high was around 30. But Price said that report must have been an error.

``It's nice in Pullman right now,'' he said with a coy smile. ``The weather reports are always screwed up. It's 80 degrees and sunny there this time of year.''

Playing it up: Price loves the questions that portray Michigan as the powerhouse and his Washington State team as the poor school from nowhere.

``They've got all the money, the tradition, the facilities,'' Price said. ``We don't have everything. . . . They are Goliath, we are definitely the David. We're just a bunch of country guys who drove down here in a pick-up truck.''

Price figures ``everyone outside of the state of Michigan'' can identify with his team and will be rooting for the Cougars.

``We've just got to turn the underdog into a wonder dog,'' he said.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 28, 1997
Words:769
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