Opposing teams have a difficult time stopping Weber State's Rico Washington. His coach has a hard time getting him to crack a smile.

"He really is a reserved individual," Denny Huston says. "He keeps to himself quite a bit . . . You don't even know he's around, he's just kind of there."Fortunately for the first-year Wildcat coach, Washington was there when Huston arrived in Ogden. The senior forward ended last month averaging 24.3 points and 11.8 rebounds as Weber got off to a surprising 7-2 start in the preseason.

For his efforts, Washington has been named the Deseret News Athlete of the Month for December.

As a junior, Washington made a big impression. Despite playing on a 9-21 team that finished eighth in the league, he was named first team all-Big Sky and conference Newcomer of the Year, as well as making the Basketball Times All-Transfer first team. But Rico will never make the all-interview team - he simply doesn't have much to say.

"I'd rather go play than talk about it," Washington says.

"He leads by action instead of vocally," says Weber assistant coach Ray Lopes. "He gets out there on the floor and works his butt off.

"It's like that commercial - when Rico speaks, everyone listens. But the times he speaks are few and far between."

But if actions speak louder than words, Washington is deafening on the court. He's a force on the floor, scoring, rebounding and intimidating his opponents.

In his first season as a Wildcat last year - he redshirted in 1986-87 after transferring from Gloucester Community College in Sewell, N.J. - Washington set a single-season field-goal-shooting record at Weber, hitting 59.9 percent of his shots. His 577 points was the third-best in school history and his 300 rebounds was ninth.

Of the 29 games Weber State played last season, Washington was the leading scorer in 24 and the leading rebounder in 27 - and he missed one game with a sprained ankle.

Heading into this week's games, Washington leads the league in scoring, at 23.5 points per game, and in rebounding, where his 11.3 average is nearly three more than the second-best player's average.

Huston cites his 6-7 center's quickness and his ability to recognize defenses. "He has such a feel for where he is," the coach says. "The thing that surprised me is that a player of his physical stature is able to operate as well as he does under the basket. He plays like he's 6-8, 6-9, 6-10."

Washington pulls down rebounds few other players could get and pulls in passes that would otherwise be turnovers.

"The gift that he has is his hands," assistant coach Jim Mossel says. "He has the sweetest hands. If we could keep one thing in our program and hand it out to other players, it would be Rico's hands."

Washington himself thinks his main attribute is his desire. "I want the ball all the time," he says. "I want the ball, from my teammates and off the boards. Being hungry - that's what I want to be all the time."

Huston says he considers himself fortunate to have arrived at Weber State with a player of Washington's quality already on the squad. And he doesn't even want to think about what the Wildcats would be without Rico.

"When Rico's on the floor, he makes the other players a lot better," Huston says. "Defenses are normally skewed to defend him. The other players reap the benefits. And Rico does a great job despite all the pressure that's applied to him."

Not that Washington feels the pressure. Although he appears grim and determined on the court, he's an easy-going guy away from the game - even if he doesn't smile much.

One of the few people who can make Washington smile is Mossel. "Although how they find humor in practice is beyond me," Huston says.

According to Mossel, all it takes is some sarcasm.

"He'll make a really great play, and I just tell him how easy it was," Mossel says. "I tell him it's no big deal or, `You're not the only person from Philadelphia who can make that play.' "

Although arriving in Utah was a bit of a shock for the Philly-born-and-raised Washington, he immediately fell in love with the state. "It's been all good experiences for me here," Rico says. "I would choose Utah over anyplace else. You can't really get distracted from basketball out here."

But back home in Philadelphia, there were plenty of distractions.

"It's a tough place to grow up," Washington says. "I have good parents who raised me well, but there were a lot of bad influences. The lifestyle is a lot different. So many people out there are on drugs. Some of my best friends are on drugs.

"I saw myself going in the wrong direction, and I wanted to get out."

After starring at Ben Franklin High School and moving on to New Jersey for junior college, Washington made the move to Utah. Now that he's earning his degree - majoring in criminal justice and minoring in physical education - and has accomplished his goal of playing Division I basketball, Rico is aiming for a couple more dreams.

"I want to make it to the NCAA playoffs," he says. "That's one of my biggest dreams. It's something I think about every night."

And after his senior year is over?

"I hope I play well enough this year to make it to the NBA."

His coach thinks that may happen. "I think he has the skills and the talent," Huston says. "I wouldn't count Rico out when he sets his mind to something."