Perhaps the best explanation of Rodney Rice comes from Rodney Rice himself. "I'm still a child at heart," he says. How else do you explain the unabashed singing in the locker room, the collection of, uh, teddy bears, the shaking it up at The Palace on Saturday night, the nonstop chatter and smile. Yo, Rod, life is serious business, right? "I'm just a happy guy," he says.

And, as he'll tell you, he has plenty to be happy about. Oh, sure, life cheated him out of some height and gave it to his siblings, but it also blessed him with speed, quickness, coordination, fancy feet and a good set of hands, not to mention watchful parents and numerous friends.Rice, a 5-foot-71/4, 185-pound cornerback, is perhaps the best pure cover man ever to play at BYU. Watch him downfield this week as BYU plays the University of Utah in Rice (no relation) Stadium. Few are better than Rice when it comes to just plain sticking with a receiver. The receiver has the advantage of knowing where he's going, but turn right, left, stop, go, fake out, dip in, he can rarely shake Rice, and if he does it won't be for long. As teammate Troy Long says, "Rodney can get away with a lot because of his speed."

Since breaking into the starting lineup last year, Rice has intercepted 13 passes and returned two for touchdowns. Despite missing three games with an injury, he had seven interceptions last year, including one in the All-American Bowl.

Interception opportunities have been more difficult to come by this year, and yet Rice still leads the team in that category with six. Understandably, opponents have been throwing away from Rice, preferring instead to go after the only non-senior in the secondary, Scott Bergeson, on the other corner. "That's when you can have lapses, and then they'll come back at you," says Rice. San Diego State did just that two weeks ago. After throwing the other way all night, quarterback Scott Barrick finally went Rice's way - and paid for it with an interception.

Air Force quarterback Dee Dowis made the same mistake last Saturday. Trailing by just four points late in the third quarter, the Falcons had driven deep into BYU territory when Dowis, who had been intercepted just once all year, threw a

pass intended for Steve Senn, who was being covered by Rice, his former Pop Warner teammate. Senn had given Rice an inside move and then broken outside, but his defender recovered quickly.

"I was right on his hip when the ball came," said Rice. "It was low and outside, but I got to it." BYU took the interception and marched 79 yards upfield for the game-clinching touchdown.

"For a guy to intercept that many passes, he's got to be doing something right, especially for a cornerback," says BYU defensive coordinator Dick Felt, a one-time all-pro defensive back in the old American Football League.

What's more, in the past two seasons Rice has surrendered just one touchdown to his assigned receiver - a quick slant from in close, last year against CSU. This year he's working on a shutout.

"He's got a chance to play pro football," says Felt. "He has a lot of skills you can't coach. He has excellent footwork, quickness and speed, agility and balance, he can change direction and he can catch the ball. He has great interception ability. He can get himself in position and go get it."

"Rodney Rice is certainly one of the top cornerbacks in the country," says Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry. "He can run stride for stride with anyone and can also play great against the run."

For a small man, Rice certainly holds his own while defending the run, which is the other, less pleasant chore for a cornerback. So far this season, Rice has collected 45 tackles (32 unassisted) to go with the six interceptions and six pass deflections. "I don't try to overpower people, that's not realistic," says Rice of his weekend battles with 6-foot-5, 260-pound pulling guards.

Rochelle Rice, a career Air Force man and a former South Carolina State lineman, passed along his athletic ability but none of his 6-foot-2, 260-pound size to Rodney, the last of his six children. It was as if all that size had been drained by his two older sons and one of his daughters, all of whom are bigger than Rodney.

The Rice household was a strict one, especially when it came to schooling. Rodney didn't take any of this too seriously until his father saw one of his report cards during his freshman year in high school. "You're not playing basketball this year," he announced.

"I thought he was kidding," says Rodney. "That was the last time I played basketball."

To this day, says Felt, "Rodney's father and mother keep a thumb on him," and he means it as a compliment. BYU mails Rice's grades directly to his parents, at their request, and not to him. That may or not be why Rice has a 2.97 grade-point average and is scheduled to graduate on time this spring with a degree in social work, provided all-star games and pro camps don't interfere with his class work. He hopes to become a counselor for delinquent teenagers or to seek a commission in the Air Force.

Being an Air Force family, the Rices moved often, of course. They lived in Germany, Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam (twice), Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas before Rochelle finally retired in Atwater, Calif., where Rodney attended high school. When people ask how it is that a black man can fit in so well in overwhelmingly white Provo, Rice has a ready answer: "I've been in so many cultures, it's easy for me to get along."

Rice has nearly adopted several families in the Provo area. He goes on picnics with them, watches their kids play Little League baseball or plays touch football with them. "I wish I could get on TV and thank them for all the nice things they've done for me," he says.

Rice, one of BYU's team captains, is a personable, gregarious, outgoing sort. He makes a big show of singing in the BYU locker room - until teammates beg him to quit. He likes to dance - or "shake it up," as he says, at The Palace in Provo. He roams the aisles on the team charter, visiting teammates. "He's a popular player," says Felt. "He's well-liked."

Just in the past week alone, fans have sent Rice five teddy bears to add to his collection. It seems that a few years ago a date gave him a teddy bear, and one thing led to another until now he has about 50 of the things, not to mention bear towels, bear soap, bear blankets, brass bears, ceramic bears, candle bears, bear necklaces.

"People have been very nice to me," says Rice. "I'm thankful for what I have. It's weird how everything is turning out for me. Not a lot of people get this opportunity, especially my size."

Perhaps as a result, Rice has a deep appreciation for the highs of the game. When he came off the field after returning an interception for a touchdown last year against UTEP in another game-clinching play, he had tears streaming down his face. The play and the appreciation of teammates and fans were simply overwhelming.

Rice took the long route to major college football. He passed up several scholarship offers from big schools to attend Merced (Calif.) Junior College for two years, then he came to BYU in 1986. He spent that first long year as a redshirt, then got his first chance to play last year, only to be sidelined with a dislocated elbow. He returned to the lineup at midseason, and he's been on a roll since then. Rice marvels that agents call and write, and scouts watch him from the sidelines.

"I never thought I'd be in this position," he says.

But it shouldn't be surprising, considering his raw skills - 4.44 speed in the 40, good springs (he can dunk a basketball off the alley-oop pass), strength (he can bench press in the mid 300-pound range.

And his confidence is growing. "No defensive back is going to stop a receiver all the time, but I'll win more than I lose," says Rice. "All I need in the pros is a chance to develop."

In the meantime, there is the Saturday date with Utah and quarterback Scott Mitchell, the passingest team in the country. "I do get excited about playing a team like that," says Rice. "They'll challenge me and I like that. I welcome people to throw at me. It's the only way you find out how good you are and what you need to improve on."