In his senior year at Culver City (Calif.) High, Carnell Lake had a respectable season at tailback, rushing for 965 yards. When you consider that Lake fractured his right elbow in Culver City's fifth game, and missed the rest of the season, his rushing total commands a little more respect.
Lake broke the elbow throwing a halfback option pass, but the fracture hardly disrupted his career. That spring, Lake accepted a scholarship to UCLA, where a sophomore tailback named Gaston Green was already enrolled. That is why, this fall, the 21-year-old Lake is a preseason favorite to win the Butkus Award, presented annually to the country's best linebacker, rather than the Heisman Trophy, presented to the best offensive-back-who-also-happens-to-have-a-boffo-promotional-campaign-behind-him. Unable to bear seeing Lake idle on the sidelines, Bruin coaches made him a linebacker in his freshman year.
Whether or not Lake is the best line-backer in the country, the UCLA senior is one of the slightest, at 6'½" 205 pounds, and one of the quickest, with 4.37-second speed in the 40. Carnell Augustino Lake—his maternal grandmother was Italian—is unconcerned about his size. "Who wants to walk around with a big jug of protein?" he asks. "I weigh 205, and I'm hot already."
Indeed, who needs bulk when you have his wheels? Lake avoids collisions until he finds the ball, and often he will not even waste a move on a lineman, opting simply to blow by him. Lake had 13 sacks last season and 19 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Says Bruin running-backs coach Ted Williams, "He is unblockable."
September 4, 1988
Holy terror though Lake may be on the field, off it he is about as intimidating as Mister Rogers. During a recent interview, he chatted about politics and gardening, his mother's exercise regimen and his summer school course in jurisprudence (he's considering law school). He sipped pink lemonade and dabbed with a napkin at beads of perspiration on his forehead.
Lake was perspiring because he had just come from UCLA's track, where he had run a series of 400-meter sprints under the midday sun. Why not wait until the cool of the evening for that sort of torture? "My first game starting, we played Oklahoma," says Lake. "The heat was rising off the turf, and they were just marching up and down the field." The Bruins were beaten 38-3 in that 1986 game, and Lake has since made conditioning a religion.
As befitting someone of his talent, Lake is capable of extraordinary, if inadvertent, cockiness. Asked what he needs to improve upon, Lake is stumped. "How I could be better.... Let me see," he says, drifting into thought. Then, realizing how that must sound, he blurts, "I need to be more consistent. Consistency. Thai's what I need." The truth is that Lake could start in an NFL secondary this afternoon, which is where he is projected to play in the pros.
In August of Lake's freshman year, he and his classmates were put through a battery of drills. In the first drill, players ran along a painted line, exaggerating their crossover strides. Lake ran it faster than anyone ever had at UCLA. After a backpedaling drill, Tom Hayes, a defensive coach, said of Lake: "I have to have him."
Then came pass routes. After Lake ran a streak pattern up the sideline, Homer Smith, then offensive coordinator, told head coach Terry Donahue, "I want him."
But Lake became a linebacker—the only position he could step into immediately. He also played wedge breaker on the kickoff team, the kamikaze who hurls himself into the phalanx of blockers around the kick returner.
Lake grew homesick for tailback, so, in his sophomore year, Donahue let him run back kickoffs, too. He averaged 20.5 yards a return. On defense, he was moved to the "whip" position, where he has started ever since. His job on most plays is to line up on the line of scrimmage and charge. Even running backs, who are responsible for picking up blitzing linebackers, are no match for Lake, and why should they be? As a linebacker, he is a better running back than most in the Pac-10.