METAIRIE, La. – People keep telling Chris Ivory he’s going to be a star, which is the last thing the New Orleans Saints’ rookie running back wants to hear.
“Some people tend to get too proud of themselves too early and I don’t want to get too proud of myself right now,” said Ivory, whose 158 yards rushing in Tampa Bay last Sunday were the most by a Saints player since Deuce McAllister had 165 in 2003.
“I try to stay away from stuff that’s been said about me,” Ivory added after practice on Wednesday, speaking in a soft, raspy voice that at times barely rises above a whisper. “I don’t Google or nothing like that because I don’t want to see all that and I just try to stay focused. The more you stay focused on what you need to do, I feel like the harder you’ll continue to work.”
Playing more because of injuries to Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, Ivory has taken a major step toward overcoming a largely discouraging college career that ended with the once-promising Washington State recruit laboring in obscurity at Division II Tiffin in Ohio.
Ivory had never heard of Tiffin before coach Dave Walkosky called to offer him a second chance.
The 6-foot, 222-pound Ivory said he was dismissed from Washington State by coach Paul Wulff because he’d missed a practice and had been late for a few team meetings and appointments with trainers. He said he also thought Wulff, who took over for the fired Bill Doba before Ivory’s junior season, used him as an example.
“He was trying to turn the program around,” Ivory recalled, “so nobody had room for mistakes.”
For the most part, Wulff concurs with Ivory.
“I think Chris is somewhat accurate,” Wulff told The Spokesman-Review this week. “Not all the details are there, but I don’t disagree with Chris’ statement.”
There was also an alleged July 2009 altercation in which Ivory was accused of hitting another man over the head with a bottle. Ivory has since been charged with felony assault, but said he is innocent. Whitman County prosecutor Denis Tracy has said he’d likely let the current NFL season end before scheduling a court date in the case.
Walkosky, a former Washington State special teams coach under Doba, said he didn’t hesitate to bring Ivory to Tiffin.
“I knew him as a person,” Walkosky said of their time together with the Cougars. “I wanted that kid on my team. He’s a solid person who cares about winning.”
Ivory, a native of Longview, Texas, had enjoyed moments of brilliance at Washington State. As a freshman he rushed for an 80-yard TD against Idaho. In three seasons with the Cougars, he had 91 carries for 534 yards, an average of 5.9 yards per carry.
“If you say there’s a kid in the Pac-10 (Conference) averaging 5.9, he’s a first- or second-round draft pick,” Walkosky said.
Ivory was a model player at Tiffin who worked hard and blamed himself when the team opened 2009 with three losses, Walkosky said.
“He comes to my office and says, ‘Coach, what am I doing wrong? Do you want me to play defense?’ ” Walkosky recalled, laughing. “That’s the type of kid he was. We’re sitting there at 0-3 … and he’s like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ He looked at himself first. That shows the character of Chris Ivory.”
The next game, Ivory tore the meniscus in his left knee and missed the rest of the season, leaving his pro prospects uncertain.
“I wasn’t going to give up,” Ivory said, “but I had doubts.”
Ivory’s combination of size and speed had caught the attention of Saints scout Dwaune Jones. When the NFL draft was over and teams were scouring for rookie free agents, Walkosky got a call from Saints running backs coach Bret Ingalls, a former University of Idaho player and assistant coach. Walkosky, who’d recruited Saints receiver Lance Moore to Toledo, told Ingalls that Moore and Ivory were similar in terms of their approach – hardworking and unselfish.
Not long after Saints training camp opened, Saints players began to notice Ivory’s potential.
“Good running backs in this league are kind of easy to tag: Strong, fast, good pad-leverage,” Saints fullback Heath Evans said. “For me with Chris, it was easy to spot from Day 1. He’s kind of a quiet guy who just attacks the game.”
After seeing Ivory’s whopping 10.5 yards per carry against the Buccaneers last Sunday, Cleveland coach Eric Mangini seemed to lament the prospect that got away from under his nose.
“He’s from Tiffin. … How far away is that? An hour and a half?” Mangini said. “He’s fast and he has a nice combination of size and the willingness to be physical.”
Ivory ran over Bucs defenders on some runs and outran them on others, and Browns linebacker Scott Fujita took note while studying Saints video this week.
“He’s faster than I thought he was and he gets to the edge so quickly,” Fujita said. “He runs violent. He runs aggressive and he’s got some pretty good wiggle, too.”