BOWLING GREEN - Eighteen months ago, you might have found Joe Alls on his way to the bus station, looking to buy a ticket out of town. Instead of busting through a hole in the line and breaking for daylight, Alls could have run away and never come back.
A lot of guys left town when Urban Meyer took over the Bowling Green State University football program, deciding that the new regimen was too hard and the commitment too much of a sacrifice. Alls was almost one of them - almost.
But Alls did an about-face, and subsequently has developed into one of the best running backs in the Mid-American Conference. He is 19th in the country with 115.3 yards per game, and had a career-high 167 yards on 20 carries in BG's most-recent win, at Kansas. Alls has journeyed from almost-gone to being the workhorse of the offense.
“My first spring here I was ready to get rid of him,'' Meyer said. “He wouldn't practice hard. His knee was a little sore so he pulled himself out of workouts. The coaches got after him like he's never been gotten after before. I was really ready to get rid of Joe Alls, but fortunately for this football team, Joe Alls changed his approach.''
Alls, a senior from Sterling Heights, Mich., said he jumped on board just before walking the plank.
“There were a lot of times when I woke up in the morning and had a tough time coming over here to the stadium,'' Alls said. “It was real difficult. We were getting driven into the ground every day. It was some of the hardest training that I've ever been through. But I realized that if I stuck it out, it would not only make me a better player, it would make me a better person.''
Alls has become both. He is a team leader, and a threat to run, catch a pass, or even throw one. Alls took a handoff at Kansas, then stopped and threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Josh Harris.
“I'm not a big back, and in the old offense I was getting banged up a lot,'' Alls said. “I think this new spread offense we have utilizes our speed and quickness more, and allows us to be much more creative in how we attack. We're not trying to run over people - we're running around them and running away from them.''
Two years ago Alls would get arm-tackled as he tried to turn the corner. Initial contact at the line of scrimmage usually slowed him down or stopped him. His leg drive was inconsequential.
That's the old Joe. At 5-10 and 195 pounds he is still not a power back by definition, but rather by design. Alls first became a devoted disciple of strength-and-conditioning coach Aaron Hillmann, and then became a much better running back.
“He's one of those kids who does everything I ask him to do, and does it exactly the way I ask him to do it,'' Hillmann said. “More than anything else, Joe has allowed himself to be coached. Strength-and-conditioning work is much more productive if you don't have to finagle your way into the kid's head first. He he worked very hard, and as a result Joe has gotten stronger everywhere.''
Meyer said almost every championship team has a 1,000-yard rusher, and Alls has the potential to do that for BG, if he can avoid the injuries that have limited his play in earlier years.
“His stock is at an all-time high, and I understand that, but we need to remember we're only three games into it,'' Meyer said.
Alls had 592 yards as a redshirt freshman, starting the final three games of the 1999 season. He was hampered by injuries in 2000 and limited to just 191 yards in eight games.
Last year Alls played in 10 games, starting eight times, and gained 533 yards in 129 carries, and had two 107-yard games - Missouri and Marshall.
Meyer said he is pleased to see Alls stick with the program and evolve into a critical piece of the high-scoring BG offense.
“He's not the same guy,'' Meyer said. “The Joe Alls from spring practice a year and a half ago would no longer be with this program. He would have been one of the 22 guys who decided to pack their bags and go elsewhere. It is a very hard, difficult thing to do, and Joe Alls made that decision to be a part of it - and I'm very proud of him for that.''
Alls could have skipped town and saved himself a lot of sweat and pain, but he feels the rewards made it worth the price. He was a big part of BG's 8-3 mark a year ago that came after six straight losing seasons, and he has had an even bigger role in this season's 3-0 start.
“Coach Meyer told us pretty soon after he got here that `you're either with us, or you're not'. You're either going to be on that train, or not,'' Alls said. “It took me a while, but I finally understood what he was trying to do, and I knew I wanted to be on that train with him.''