When Toledo running back David Fluellen became frustrated earlier in his career, his parents gave him a college football history lesson.
Barry Sanders, they told him, once was a backup to another future NFL star, Thurman Thomas, at Oklahoma State.
And once he got his opportunity, he took it like a shot and didnt look back, Fluellen said of Sanders, one of the best running backs in football history. Thats the same thing Im trying to do.
Fluellen ranks eighth in the nation in rushing going into Saturdays Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Utah State at Bronco Stadium.
He has 1,460 yards including a six-game span in which he accumulated 1,094 yards and topped 200 yards three times. He was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nations top running back.
The junior likely will finish this season with twice as many carries as he got in his first two seasons combined.
We lost a great one, Adonis Thomas, Toledo coach Matt Campbell said. We really knew we had something special with David. He was just waiting for his time for us to let him truly take over.
Fluellen (6-foot, 215 pounds), of Lockport, N.Y., rushed for 224 yards as a true freshman in 2010. He gained 493 yards as a sophomore, but only once received more than 11 carries.
I talked to my parents when I was feeling down, he said. My parents definitely helped me stay focused during that whole thing and they brought up that (Sanders) story to me, so I always kept that in the back of my mind: Whenever I get my opportunity, Ive got to shine.
Fluellen has impressed his coach with his dedication to becoming a complete back. He has 32 catches for 246 yards this season and is a reliable blocker.
Anytime youre looking at elite running backs, Campbell said, they have the ability to do three things thats run the football, catch the ball out of the backfield and be a relentless blocker. And when you watch his overall product, he may be as good at that as anybody in the country, at doing all three things well. Hes built himself into one of the elite players in the country.
The Utah State defense, which ranks 12th in the nation against the run (111.4 yards per game), has taken note.
Hes not the heaviest back, linebacker Zach Vigil said, but hes really strong, is what Ive seen. He finishes runs well.
Fluellen also hopes to finish the season well.
He missed the final regular-season game with an ankle injury. He says that wont slow him this week.
Im very hungry, he said. I feel like Ive got to prove myself all over again. I feel like I have doubters, like, His ankle is not OK. Im 100 percent and Utah States going to get my A-game.