Chugging along the sidelines, Nathaniel Mahoney obeyed his instincts.
The defense was closing in. Mahoney's only escape route required a severe right turn. Exploiting the defense's up-field momentum, The Citadel's rising sophomore tailback wove his way downfield for a 41-yard touchdown.
It was the final scrimmage of the spring and Mahoney's last audition for the Bulldogs' starting job before summer workouts. What began as a simple option pitch on March 21 may ultimately be his best sales pitch for a starting role.
Although not quite the magnitude of Marcus Allen's 74-yard jaunt in Super Bowl XVIII, Mahoney's cross-grain cut did draw comparisons to the longest run in Super Bowl history.
Both originated around the left end. Both left defenders traipsing vainly after them. Both left indelible impressions.
"They told me I made a Marcus Allen cut across the field," the former Silver Bluff player said.
A memorable dash punctuated a stellar spring for Mahoney. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound multi-dimensional runner rushed for 244 yards and six touchdowns in three spring scrimmages.
The 18-year-old tailback must beat out a pair of contenders for The Citadel's 2000 season opener at Clemson on Sept. 2. Rising sophomore Kenyon Doyle gained 254 yards and scored four touchdowns this spring while redshirt freshman James Breaker had 102 yards and a touchdown in the Bulldogs' first scrimmage.
"He had a good spring," said running backs coach Everette Sands. "Right now, it's up in the air. Whoever does the best in the preseason will start.
"Nate is a little bigger runner who carries some people further (than the other backs)."
Sands said each of his backs will play in the fall but is waiting for one to separate himself from the others. Following a forgettable 2-9 1999 campaign, Mahoney is poised to build on his 153 yards on 35 carries his freshman season.
A hip-pointer slowed the versatile Mahoney, who saw action at linebacker, defensive back, defensive end and receiver in addition to tailback his senior season at Silver Bluff. Despite his meager rookie numbers, Mahoney is eyeing Stump Mitchell's school-record 4,062 career rushing yards.
"I expect to expand on what I did in the spring," Mahoney said. "Hopefully, I will be that back. There haven't been too many 1,000-yard rushers since Antonio (Smith). I want to be the next one. I want to set the career records and maybe the single-season record."
Smith's 1,080 yards in 1998 was the last time a Bulldog broke the 1,000- yard barrier. In three separate games last year, Mahoney led The Citadel in rushing.
His greatest attribute may be his versatility. Possessing speed and staggering power, Mahoney's rushing exploits may multiply when he combines his athleticism with his keen understanding of defensive tendencies.
"It helps because I know what the linebackers are going to do," Mahoney said. "It's a lot easier to run the ball and know where the holes are going to be."
Reach Jimmy DeButts at (706) 823-3221