Liberty High football coach Galen Zimmerman spoke to Jay Ajayi, his former star tailback, during a trying freshman year at Boise State. He reinforced the same lesson he taught him at the Frisco, Texas, school.
Those people who are the most successful in life are not always the brightest or the best, Zimmerman said, describing his advice. Theyre the ones who persist the longest.
So just dont quit.
Ajayi, whose first six months in Boise included the disappointment of redshirting, a serious knee injury and a suspension for the bowl trip, has rebounded with a breakout first season of college football.
The 6-foot, 222-pounder has produced the third-most yards from scrimmage on the team with 288 rushing yards, scored two touchdowns and averaged 7.4 yards per carry going into Saturdays game at Wyoming. He is the No. 2 tailback behind senior D.J. Harper, providing a battering-ram alternative to the elusive starter.
Ajayi rushed for 2,218 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior at Liberty.
Hes just really hard to take down, senior tailback Drew Wright said.
Ajayi has carried 38 times in the past four games. He caught everyones attention with a 71-yard run Sept. 29 at New Mexico, but perhaps has shown his greatest value in the past two games with a tough, 9-yard run on third down to close out the Fresno State game and a 4-yard touchdown run against UNLV on which he shed a tackler at the 2-yard line.
Frequently, it has taken several defenders to drag him to the ground.
Hes such a physical back, senior left guard Joe Kellogg said. He can go run through arm tackles and punish (defensive backs).
Teammates say they could sense that power in practice. Still, since the team rarely tackles, Ajayis style was a bit of a mystery.
Even now, coach Chris Petersen isnt ready to describe him.
Were all still figuring out his style what hes truly going to bring to the table, Petersen said. To really know, it needs to be consistent, it needs to be over a long period of time. Hes definitely different than the other guys.
And it could be a while perhaps even next season before Ajayi gets that level of opportunity.
Harper, the sixth-year senior who has contributed team highs of 705 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns, is the clear starter. Ajayis emergence has taken some strain off Harper, but hes still the player the coaches trust most.
We got Doug Martin into a good rhythm last year and D.J. was a good team guy, Petersen said. I dont think it helps us to split the carries equally if were throwing the ball a decent amount.
There was a time when it looked as if Ajayi might have been part of that rotation with Martin and Harper last season. That was his goal, and coaches said going into fall camp that they thought he could do it.
But Wright stepped up as the third tailback and Ajayi tore an anterior cruciate ligament in practice.
He still wears a brace and Petersen seems to follow every comment about Ajayis performance this season with the condition, if he can stay healthy.
It was a bad injury, Petersen said.
Ajayi, who was 17 when he arrived at Boise State, added some self-inflicted adversity. He pleaded guilty in December to misdemeanor petit theft and was left home when the Broncos traveled to the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.
Petersen tacked a suspension for this years season opener at Michigan State onto the penalty.
The incident was a surprise from a player Zimmerman and teammates describe in glowing terms.
He had some issues his freshman year, he owned up to them and fixed them and made sure they didnt happen over again, Kellogg said. Hes changed his mentality. Hes focused more on football and school. Ive seen plenty of guys who have messed up and cant rebound from that or had a huge injury and cant rebound. Its great to see him come back the way he has.
Said Wright: Hes an awesome kid great to be around.
Petersen has not made Ajayi available to the media for interviews this season. He often restricts access to players who have had off-field issues.
But he says Ajayi has earned his way back onto the field.
He did everything we required of him which was a lot, Petersen said.
Thats what Ajayi told Zimmerman he would do.
He said, Im going to get myself headed in the right direction and Im going to work hard and be as good as I possibly can, Zimmerman said. I really think thats as much the key to his success as anything his attitude of Im not going to let something bad that happened keep me from getting where I want to go.
Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat