by Chris Bahn
Posted 9/20/2012 03:00 pm
Updated 7 months ago
David Oku talks like a man who is glad to be back in college football.
Oku doesn’t mind telling you he was moved to tears when making his debut for Arkansas State at Oregon to open the season. It was Oku’s first college football action since 2010 and being back on the field was — momentarily — overwhelming.
“It was really emotional,” Oku said. “To be honest, I cried a little bit.”
Watch Oku run and he looks like a guy who is glad to be back in college football. He’s not quite on pace to join other 1,000-yard rushers who have starred in a Gus Malzahn offense, but could hit that mark with a strong finish. Through three games he leads the Red Wolves in rushing.
But if you really want to get a sense of how grateful Oku is to be back on the field, Red Wolves’ running backs coach Eliah Drinkwitz says you should see the guy practice. Oku’s approach to workouts might be the best proof of how much the opportunity means to Oku, who left Tennessee in 2011.
“He practices like a guy that is hungry and glad to be back in football,” Drinkwitz said. “Everybody wants to shine under the lights with thousands of people watching you, but the ones that are special practice hungry. David practices hungry.
“Every rep for him, he runs like it’s his last rep. You can tell he’s got something to prove. ... He runs like he’s saying, ‘I’m here to set the record straight about who I am as a person and a football player.’ ”
Oku, regarded as the nation’s No. 2 running back recruit when he signed with Lane Kiffin and Tennessee in the class of 2009, surfaced at Arkansas State in the summer. He’d spent the last 12-plus months out of football after falling out of favor with Derek Dooley, who took over the Vols when Kiffin left for Southern Cal.
Off-field troubles — Oku was arrested on charges that were later dropped — didn’t help his cause. Oku left the Volunteers program, returned to his hometown in Oklahoma and continued to work out while holding down a job and wondering if he’d get a shot at returning to football.
Arkansas State provided Oku with the chance to get back into the game. He’s still working his way into game shape and coaches continue to harp on consistency — with his alignment, stance and other details of playing the position — but Oku has made an immediate impact for the Red Wolves.
Entering Saturday’s game with Alcorn State, ASU leads the Sun Belt in rushing at 224 yards per game, good enough to rank No. 27 nationally. Oku is a big reason for the success on the ground, averaging 78.67 yards per game. Additionally, he’s contributed six catches for 40 yards and four kick returns for 71 yards.
Oku’s only touchdown so far was a critical one. His 1-yard run with 6:31 remaining was the game-winner in a 33-28 victory against Memphis. He finished the game with 130 yards on 25 carries.
"Really, we didn’t know what to expect," Malzahn said. "You'd seen him play at a high level before. He fits really well in the offense. We expect him to improve too."
Finding a complement to Oku is an ongoing process for the Red Wolves. Frankie Jackson, Sirgregory Thornton and Michael Gordon have all shown flashes of being a threat behind Oku. Freshman Rocky Hayes has also added an element to the running game, though he’s more of a change of pace guy in the offense.
ASU needs someone to consistently get 15-20 carries behind Oku in order for the offense to work at its peak. Alcorn State provides the Red Wolves with a chance to fine tune things.
For Oku it’s another opportunity to show how much he relishes his second chance. If watching him run isn’t enough to suggest playing for Arkansas State means a lot to Oku, he’ll gladly tell you have much it means.
“It’s been real good,” Oku said. “I’ve been blessed.”