Marshall: Will Mystery Recruit Crack Lineup?

Phillip Marshall writes about a little known football prospect's possibilities of playing and starting for the Tigers this season.

It's a little-known loophole in NCAA rules.

Though the rules state that a college athlete has to complete his four years of eligibility in five years, there is a stipulation that could allow a player to return several years later for another season.

No, we're not talking about the exception that allows BYU players to go on their Mormon missions without losing eligibility. This is different, and it could end up with Auburn having a running back who could alter the depth chart in a hurry next season.

If you haven't heard the name, you will. Rosario Lirpaeno was a running back at a small high school in New Jersey in the late 1980s. He went to college at a small Division III school for three seasons before dropping out for family reasons.

That's where the new rule comes in. If an athlete can prove he left school because of extreme hardship, he or she can return at any time, even years later, to reclaim that year of eligibility if an NCAA committee allows it. That committee apparently has voted to let Lirpaeno play.

Lirpaeno, who lives now in Atlanta, is 35 years old. He left the U.S. Army two years ago after serving for 10 years. When he played in college, Lirpaeno was 5-foot-8 and weighed 165 pounds. He ran about a 4.6 40. Now he is 5-10 and weighs 225 pounds. He runs a consistent 4.3 40 and has been timed in 4.2.

It hasn't been finalized yet, but if things work out, he will enroll at Auburn this summer and join the football team as an invited walk-on. Those who have seen him run, do agility drills and the like say he has the physical ability to crack Auburn's starting lineup immediately.

Lirpaeno knows the reality of his situation. He knows he won't likely get an NFL shot at his age. But he wants to finish getting his degree and to fulfill a long-held dream of playing on college football's biggest stage. Should he get a shot at playing at the next level, so much the better.

"Since I've been in Atlanta, I've really followed Auburn," says Lirpaeno, who is married, has two children and still speaks with a New Jersey accent. "I love their program. There is no doubt in my mind they should have won the national championship last season. I can't think of anything better than coming over there and helping them do it."

Auburn coaches won't talk publicly about Lirpaeno, but privately they say they believe he could be up to the task. They believe he has the power to run over defenders and the speed, agility and quickness to run around them. Auburn track coaches have expressed interest in Jackson as well.

How did it happen? How did a running back who was ordinary even by Division III standards become such a physical specimen.

"First, let me tell you it ain't steroids," Lirpaeno says. "I hit a late growth spurt for one thing. Mainly, I worked my butt off. I won several weight-lifting competitions in the military, and I came across a guy who really helped me with my speed. It was really always there, but I just had to learn how to run."

Lirpaeno says he can bench press 445 pounds and has done 29 reps with 225 pounds.

Asked what it would be like to play with teammates almost young enough to be his sons, Lirpaeno just laughs.

"I'm sure they can teach the old man something, but I might be able to teach them a thing or two as well," Lirpaeno says. "I just hope I get the opportunity. It's looking good. I was told the NCAA approved it, but I haven't gotten the paperwork yet. If there's one thing I learned in the Army, it's that you don't count on anything until it's written on paper."

Calls to the NCAA seeking comment went unreturned. Lirpaeno speculates the NCAA doesn't want it to be well-known that is even possible to do what he is doing.

"I think there are only a very few people who would qualify," Lirpaeno says, "and they don't want a bunch of people applying. It's going to be a lot of fun. I'm working hard to make sure I'm ready."

Some fans might think it sounds too good to be true. And they are right.

Happy April Fool's Day!

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