DENVER (AP) – Ron Dayne takes the ball from the quarterback, scoots down the line of scrimmage, finds a hole and starts running.

It looks like he’s running downhill. It looks like he used to run when he was a Heisman Trophy winner in college.

“It seems like I haven’t played football in five years,” Dayne says.

Anyone who caught a glimpse of him during those five years with the New York Giants would certainly agree.

A first-round draft pick in 2000, he was supposed to give the Giants a bruising, straight-ahead presence in the backfield. Despite his size – 5-foot-10, 245 pounds – he simply didn’t run that way.

The results were disappointing: five seasons, a total of 14 starts. He was inactive the entire 2003 season, the result of a personality conflict with coach Jim Fassel. And when it was over, after new coach Tom Coughlin had given him a final look last season, Dayne had totaled only 2,067 yards on 585 carries in 62 games.

“You’d have to ask them” what the problem was, Dayne says of the Giants. “I did everything they asked me. I did everything right.”

Sometimes, though, the system really does matter.

And thus far in the preseason, it’s clear that’s the case in Denver.

Coach Mike Shanahan said the Broncos always had Dayne ranked highly in their evaluations. His 6,397-yard career at Wisconsin, which culminated with the Heisman Trophy in 1999, was surely part of it. But so was the way Dayne ran in the Wisconsin offense, which is pretty much a copy of Denver’s offense.

“He finds holes, he’s got quickness,” Shanahan said. “He’s had an excellent camp.”

How much difference can a system make?

One way of judging that would be to look at Clinton Portis, the back who starred for the Broncos for two years before they traded him to Washington for Champ Bailey before last season. In 2003, running in Denver’s system, Portis averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Last year, running in a more straight-ahead scheme in Washington, the average plummeted to 3.8 yards.

“You’re used to doing one thing, and you turn around and turn into a grinder – 3 yards a carry,” Portis said earlier this summer.

Dayne may have been envisioned as a 3-yards-a-carry guy by the Giants, but so far in Denver, it’s clear that’s not his style. Through two preseason games, he’s Denver’s leading rusher with 143 yards on 29 carries for an average of 4.9 yards.

More impressive was his performance in training camp. He caught the ball effectively out of the backfield, picked up on pass-protection schemes and, overall, pretty much looked like the Broncos’ best back.

He is still listed fourth on the depth chart behind Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Quentin Griffin. But Dayne has outperformed Maurice Clarett – who has missed a good portion of camp with an injured groin – and he’s looking like a good bet to make the roster.

“I don’t know about other people, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Shanahan said.

Not Dayne, either.

“A lot of people didn’t really get to see me play,” Dayne said. “Or when they did, it was more like third-and-1. Sometimes I wouldn’t get it and sometimes I would. I have been judged by that.”

AP-ES-08-23-05 1624EDT

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