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Choice looks forward to RB showdown with Slaton

ATLANTA — When asked to list the nation’s top running backs before the season, Tashard Choice made West Virginia’s Steve Slaton one of his top picks.
    Choice will have the chance to see how he compares with the West Virginia star when Georgia Tech plays the No. 13 Mountaineers in the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl.
    ‘‘He’s one of the best backs in college,’’ said Choice of Slaton. ‘‘I thought he was one of the top two or top three when I rated them.’’
    Choice’s rankings were the result of a challenge from running backs coach Curtis Modkins.
    ‘‘He asked us what we thought in ranking them,’’ Choice said. ‘‘I had Slaton up there because I saw him in a game last year and I saw what he did against Georgia to finish the season off. I thought he was great.’’
    Slaton has played up to his preseason expectations as one of the nation’s top backs. After running for 204 yards and three touchdowns to be named Sugar Bowl MVP in a win over Georgia in the last bowl season, Slaton has maintained his momentum by rushing for 1,733 yards — a West Virginia sophomore record.
    Slaton ranks third among Division I rushers with his average of 144.4 yards per game, and the sophomore already is considered one of the Heisman Trophy favorites for the 2007 season.
    No one is mentioning Choice as a Heisman candidate, but the Georgia Tech junior hopes the national exposure in the New Year’s Day bowl can help earn him the right to be included in conversations about the nation’s top backs entering next season.
    Choice enters the Gator Bowl with a streak of six straight 100-yard games. He topped the 100-yard mark in eight of the last nine games for Tech (9-4).
    Choice leads the Atlantic Coast Conference with 1,304 yards rushing and his average of 100.3 yards per game. In ACC games Choice was even better, averaging 110.2 yards per game.
    Still, Choice was only a second-team all-ACC pick, so he has been overshadowed by Tech receiver Calvin Johnson and other top backs in the conference. Clemson’s James Davis and Virginia Tech’s Brandon Ore were first-team all-ACC backs.
    A strong bowl showing would help Choice’s respect factor.
    ‘‘I hope so,’’ said Tech coach Chan Gailey. ‘‘I hope they know a lot about him when this game is done. A ton. I hope they’re in awe of him when this game is over. You hope he has that kind of ballgame.
    ‘‘I think that anytime you play on a national stage like this, it’s an opportunity for people to see players.’’
    For Choice, it’s also extra motivation.
    ‘‘I always look (at the opposing back),’’ Choice said.
    ‘‘That’s what (Modkins) said when he finished up, he said ’Is your name going to be up there next year?’ That was a big thing, so every time you go out there on the field you try to prove yourself as far as being a great back but you also try to prove yourself against other great backs in the nation. That’s always motivation. I try to be the best and that’s why I play the game.’’
    Choice, who played behind P.J. Daniels last season after transferring from Oklahoma, posted the fourth-best rushing total in school history. His eight 100-yard games matches the school record set by Eddie Lee Ivery in 1978, and his six straight 100-yard games are one shy of Ivery’s record set in 1978.
    Choice, who wears No. 22, greeted reporters at Tech’s bowl media day by saying ‘‘The Deuce is in the house.’’
    Gailey says The Deuce has a right to expect to be considered with other top backs entering next season.
    ‘‘He sure does,’’ Gailey said. ‘‘The bottom line for a running back is can he hold onto the football, can he make yards, can he stay healthy. He’s proven he can do all of those.’’
    Despite Choice’s big year, West Virginia — with Slaton, quarterback Pat White and fullback Owen Schmitt — will enter the game as the better known running team. That’s OK with Choice.
    ‘‘I like his game,’’ Choice said of Slaton. ‘‘I think he’s one of the best. It will be motivation. It will be a chance to be in the national spotlight against him. It will be great.’’

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