It took him two years, but last Tuesday night freshman Kee-ayre Griffin finally found himself back on the football field and starting at running back.
“What went through my mind was just, ‘OK. It’s my time. Stay humble. Stay calm. And think about the plays and do your job,’” Griffin said.
And did he ever do his job.
On 22 carries, Griffin rushed for a career-high 94 yards, including a 37-yard run on the football team’s first possession of the fourth quarter that set up his 1-yard touchdown run three plays later.
It’s that big-play potential that led coach Al Golden to insert Griffin into the running back position in the first place and then name him the starter last Tuesday.
“The reality is on three days of practice he’s taking the ball and going 30 yards,” Golden said prior to last Tuesday’s game. “So, we just felt we studied it hard, and there was a lot more openings there than were being converted into productive yards, so we thought we’d try him. And it’s easy to see he’s got it.
He’s got what running backs need. He’s strong inside. He’s got the lateral quickness you need. He’s elusive.”
“But the difference is he can see the second guy,” Golden added. “He’s made multiple, multiple guys miss. And he’s not focused on the guy that’s trying to tackle him. He can see the second guy, and that’s why he’s getting 30-yard runs and 40-yard runs.”
Redshirt senior quarterback Adam DiMichele has watched Griffin in practice while recuperating from a shoulder injury. And he, like Golden, likes what he sees.
“He’s been fun to watch,” DiMichele said. “And watching him break tackles last week was fun, too. He makes my job easier. He’s really coming into his own.”
For the first five games of the season, Griffin lined up exclusively at defensive back. Even after he saw action at running back during the Miami (Ohio) and Central Michigan games, he was still the second option behind redshirt freshman Joe Jones.
That was, until last Tuesday night.
After rushing for 26 yards and a touchdown on only six carries against the RedHawks and 76 yards and another touchdown on 12 carries versus the Chippewas, Griffin earned the starting nod against the Bobcats.
It was the first time he’d started a football game since he was one of Golden’s prized recruits back in 2006.
As a senior at Saint Peter’s Prep in East Orange, N.J., in 2005, Griffin carried the football 159 times and racked up 1,513 yards and 26 touchdowns, earning him first team All-State selection at running back by the Newark Star Ledger.
At one point in high school, he had as many as 30 scholarship offers and was being recruited by the likes of Boston College and West Virginia. Somehow, some way, Golden snagged him. But academics got in the way, and Griffin didn’t become eligible for the Owls until this season.
“I was staying in shape over the summer,” Griffin said. “The coaches had pretty high expectations for me. I was running, I was doing workouts with them, and I was just pushing myself during the offseason to get ready for this year because I knew it was going to be a big opportunity for me.
“This game means a lot to me,” he added. “The coaches that recruited me stayed with me over the years. And this game just means the world to me. When I’m on the field, I just keep a level head, and I try to give the coaches and the players 100 percent. Whatever these coaches want me to play [defensive back or running back], that’s what I’ll do in the game.”
Jennifer Reardon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.