University of Toledo running backs coach Louis Ayeni had a conundrum on his hands in the preseason of 2011.
He returned a couple of 1,000-yard rushers in seniors Adonis Thomas and Morgan Williams and needed to find carries for both of them. His predicament grew deeper when a sophomore out performed them both.
Ayeni likens the moment of David Fluellen’s rollicking introduction to Wally Pipp’s headache jump starting Lou Gehrig’s Hall of Fame baseball career.
Fluellen checked into a scrimmage-like situation after Thomas was benched for fumbling, took the handoff, and barreled over three or four defenders. The next play he put a move on a defensive back and outran another in the open field for a 60-yard touchdown.
“I knew then he was the best back on the team,” Ayeni said. “I was just trying to figure out how to tell these two seniors this sophomore’s going to beat you out. I went to a staff meeting that day and said if this kid was at a big school he’d be up for the Heisman.”
Fluellen, whose ailing leg could sideline him for today’s Mid-American Conference title race showdown with Buffalo, will finish his career in the coming weeks as one of the most productive backs in Toledo history. And fans still might feel cheated.
Fluellen, who has not finished a game since Sept. 28 at Ball State, has missed all or big chunks of seven games the last two seasons with various injuries, and in one instance, because of an insurmountable lead rendering his services unnecessary for the entire fourth quarter.
Ayeni on Sunday did not know if Fluellen would suit up against Buffalo, a school that Fluellen, a native of nearby Lockport, Ny., once was committed to attend.
Call Fluellen a game-time decision for the third game in a row.
Fluellen, who de-committed from Buffalo after coach Turner Gill accepted the Kansas job, says he does not let his mind wonder what his numbers might have looked like with a healthier body. He has 1,067 rushing yards and 10 TDS this year after amassing 1,498 and 13 as a junior. The experience of Thomas ultimately settled Ayeni’s debate in 2011, but Fluellen still finished his sophomore season with 493 yards.
“My individual goals are not what’s important right now,” said Fluellen, whose 3,282 rushing yards are 172 shy of Trinity Dawson for third all-time in program history. “It’s more of team goals.”
Chances lost for piling up huge rushing totals are plentiful. Fluellen checked out with a head injury after six carries and 25 yards last season against Coastal Carolina, a member of the second-tier Championship Subdivision. He was headed for a huge day last month at Bowling Green — three carries, 61 yards — before leaving with a lower leg injury on the first series.
Fluellen missed all or most of the fourth quarter in three wins this season — Eastern Washington, Western Michigan, and Navy — and still managed to rumble, in order, for 143, 160, and 220 yards.
“It gets frustrating at times, but it’s a part of the game,” he said. “Injuries do happen. You just have to let them heal up and try to come back.”
All but three of the seven games the past two seasons in which Fluellen appeared but did not total 100 yards come with an asterisk for injury — season openers against Arizona (21 carries, 72 yards) and Florida (nine carries, 46), and the 2012 Bowling Green game (21 carries, 81 yards).
The two times he did not dress were against one-win teams — Akron in 2012, and Eastern Michigan 10 days ago. An attack of three freshmen slaughtered EMU for 334 yards and four scores with their leader watching from the sideline.
“He would have had one of the best days in school history,” Ayeni said.
Ayeni, the staff’s NFL liaison, said some NFL scouts he’s spoken to have Fluellen slated as the top senior running back on their draft board. They love his versatility — Fluellen has sure hands — and noticed improvements he’s made from his junior campaign.
Most online prognostications give a softer review than Ayeni’s sources and peg Fluellen a late-round prospect.
Fluellen’s best day, in which he was healthy and more motivated than normal, came Oct. 27, 2012, at Buffalo. That afternoon the Rockets won their seventh game in a row with Fluellen treating his family and friends to 228 yards and two scores.
He says he would love to play Buffalo once more, “but I don’t want to jeopardize my team” by playing injured.
“I’ve always said this about Flu,” Ayeni said. “Good players we can all see with our eyes. My little niece can see a good player on film. But great players, elite ones like Flu, you feel them with your heart. You can feel their passion every time they play.”