Jamal Anderson walked into his first team meeting with the Atlanta Falcons three years ago and noticed that his name was listed below four others on the running-backs depth chart.

How fitting, Anderson thought. Ever since his prep days at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills in the late 1980s, he always seemed to be in a battle to belong.And though seventh-round draft choices rarely make their marks in the NFL, Anderson made his. He pulled out a marking pen and drew an arrow from his name to the top of the list.

Because of an injury to former starter Craig "Ironhead" Heyward this season, Anderson has made the top of the list. The starting role remains his, even though Heyward is now healthy.

Through seven games, Anderson leads the Falcons with 529 yards rushing on 106 carries. In two previous seasons Anderson totaled 160 yards on 41 carries.

"My role has definitely expanded this year," said Anderson, who played at Moorpark College and the University of Utah after leaving El Camino Real in 1990. "It's nice to get more plays and have some of the things I can do featured a little more."

Despite coming into training camp as the backup, Anderson worked the entire offseason as if he'd be the featured back. The emphasis was to increase his stamina and strength so he could withstand the physical toll of carrying the ball. He also worked extensively on his blocking, which was his biggest weakness the past two years.

"I did a lot of running and spent a lot of time in the weight room," said Anderson, whose 5-foot-10, 234-pound frame closely resembles that of Heyward.

His play is also similar to Heyward's. Both are more prone to deliver a hit on would-be tacklers rather then dance around them. The difference might be that Anderson has the quickness and moves to avoid defenders.

"That's something I've always done," Anderson explained. "I don't necessarily want to be just a 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-type runner. To me, there are times when you have to make people miss, but there's also a time when you need to run over people. I feel like I have the whole package."

There's no arguing that. Anderson has twice this year rushed for more than 100 yards, gaining 108 against Carolina in the opening game and getting 103 against Detroit on Oct. 6.

Falcons receiver Terance Mathis appreciates what Anderson brings to the team.

"One man can't tackle that guy," he said after a game with the Detroit Lions. "He just keeps going."

Anderson's running this year has landed him on plenty of highlight shows, especially when he straight-arms defenders onto their backsides. In a game against Minnesota, Anderson used a straight arm to run over two Vikings on the same play. And that wasn't even Anderson's favorite knockdown.

"I laid a real vicious one on a linebacker from Detroit. The poor guy was all over TV for the next couple of days," said Anderson, whose first taste of stardom was provided by his father, James, a bodyguard for Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Diana Ross, Arsenio Hall and Richard Pryor.

Anderson said he started using the straight arm while playing youth ball for the West Valley Eagles after watching old footage of Jim Brown.

He took it with him to El Camino Real, where he played in the shadow of Crespi's Russell White and Kennedy's Ontiwaun Carter.

Those two players are out of football and Anderson's career is flourishing.

"I think about that sometimes," Anderson said. "But I think the key for me is that I've always been able to raise my play at each level I've been at. I never peaked at a certain point like some other guys may have. When I got to junior college, I got a little better. Then when I went to Utah, I consistently improved and the same thing has happened in the NFL."