Freshman running back duo make strides

By Frank Gogola

Draco Smith and Joel Bouagnon were two names that were not expected to appear in football’s box scores this season.

The Huskies came into the season planning on using a committee of five running backs — a committee that did not include true freshmen Smith and Bouagnon. They were each in the midst of a redshirt season but got their calls in mid-October as the running back position took hit after hit.

NIU hoped senior Akeem Daniels would be able to go at some point, but he has been sidelined the entire season with a toe injury. Redshirt junior Giorgio Bowers left the team prior to the Purdue game Sept. 28. Sophomore Keith Harris Jr. suffered an ankle injury during the first half against Kent State Oct. 5, and then had season-ending surgery on Oct. 15.

Despite the depletions in running back depth, the decision to take the redshirts off Smith and Bouagnon was not an easy one for the coaching staff.

“It was very tough,” said running back coach Kelton Copeland. “…You never want to put a kid in a situation where it’s going to hurt him in the long haul, but we felt both of them were physically and mentally ready to handle the load of being a college tailback.”

Smith, a four-year starter at running back at Mt. Carmel High School, practiced at cornerback throughout the summer. The coaching staff moved him back to running back one week before the season opener to provide depth should the team need it.

“It was an easy transition because I played it in high school,” Smith said. “It’s second nature. The only thing that I was worried about was just learning the plays as quick as possible.”

When Harris was lost for the season, Smith saw his first collegiate action Oct. 19 at Central Michigan. Including the CMU game, Smith has played in the last four games for the Huskies. He rushed 13 times for 96 yards and caught three passes for 32 yards.

“I’ve done good,” Smith said. “But I know I still have a lot to work on. Basically, I’m just taking all the opportunities that I can get.”

When leading rusher Cameron Stingily was sidelined with turf toe against Eastern Michigan on Oct. 26, Bouagnon had his redshirt burned. Bouagnon, from Aurora Christian High School, has played vs. EMU and at UMass. He carried the ball 19 times for 74 yards and caught one pass for a 10-yard touchdown.

“I just came with the mentality, ‘Just try to work my hardest, try to work my way up,’” Bouagnon said. “I think I’ve performed OK, but I’ve still got a lot to work on, still got a lot to learn. There’s a lot of experience that you need to get by playing.

“I don’t think the work ever really stops to get to where I want to be. You can’t be complacent; you always have to work to get better. You play for your team — it’s a team game — but you have to get yourself better to get your team better.”

Head coach Rod Carey said the coaching staff tried to get Bouagnon in the game Wednesday against Ball State, but the opportunity never presented itself with the game being so back and forth. He said the plan going forward was to continue to use both Smith and Bouagnon.

“I’m really excited,” Carey said. “[They are] two young, good running backs. I think their upside is way in front of them. I think they’re going to have nice careers here.

“Now, with that all being said, ‘potential’ is the dirtiest word in football. You have to go ahead and do the work. They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them, but they’ve got a lot of potential ahead of them, too. So, I give them credit for where they’re at right now, and I want to see them go forward.”