FRISCO, Texas - Andrew Pierce didn’t see this coming. No one did. It was his first year as the University of Delaware running back, and not even that starting job was guaranteed until the final days of training camp in late August, following a year when he didn’t play as a grayshirt.
Pierce not only became the featured back at UD, but he also racked up 1,513 yards rushing, more than double the previous school record for a freshman. He ranks third in school history for a single season (just 112 yards behind Germaine Bennett in second place) and was named Steele’s national freshman of the year.
“It’s just been a dream come true,” Pierce said. “Sitting out a year, and being able to hop right in and become a big factor on the team, it’s been amazing for me, and hopefully for the fans who watch.
“I just want to finish it off right.”
Pierce will get that chance Friday night in the FCS national championship game when UD takes on Eastern Washington.
UD coach K.C. Keeler desperately wants to give him that chance. Keeler’s reputation is built around the no-huddle and the wide-open passing game. But he has said - and proved - often this season that he wants to run the ball extensively, especially if the Hens have the lead.
UD did this against Georgia Southern as Pat Devlin threw the ball just twice in the second half, and not at all in the fourth quarter, during its 27-10 win in the semifinals. Pierce had 186 yards rushing.
“If they don’t have the ball, they can’t win,” Devlin said about EWU. “If I don’t throw the ball at all, and we win, I’m fine with that. To be able to give the ball to a great back like (Pierce) is always a great thing.”
Five months ago, however, UD didn’t know it had a running back it could give the ball to in order to drain the clock and keep its defense off the field.
David Hayes and Leon Jackson were the main returning backs from last year, when UD rushed for 1,221 yards.
Pierce, meanwhile, was in the stands for home games watching UD finish out a 6-5 season that fell short of the playoffs.
The season before, Pierce had rushed for 1,640 yards as a senior at Cumberland Regional High School in Bridgeton, N.J. He said Pittsburgh, Virginia, Temple and James Madison looked at him, but none had offered him a scholarship. Nebraska invited him to walk on.
Pierce said that was somewhat understandable. His high school was a small one, and not too many players from there had gone to Division I programs. The coach was in his first year and wasn’t really familiar with the recruiting game. Pierce admitted that he wasn’t as proactive as he could have been.
“I didn’t go to any combines, and I didn’t really have any direction,” Pierce said.
So when UD offered Pierce a chance as a grayshirt, meaning he could enroll in February as a walk-on, then take part in spring practice, he jumped at the chance.
Keeler, who had seen Pierce’s tape from high school, was stunned that no one had offered him a scholarship. Pierce has a partial scholarship for this season. He hopes to get a full scholarship for next season.
“To say I knew he would be this good would be a stretch,” Keeler said. “But there’s a reason why I went over there and visited him in person (in high school) and encouraged him to work out and earn money, because there was something about him that I knew was special.”
Keeler just had to wait a while to see it.
During fall 2009, Pierce took classes at a community college in New Jersey and worked at a local training center for aspiring young athletes.
“That humbled me a lot,” Pierce said. “A lot of emotions ran through me, seeing what everyday college students have to do to pay for school and work a job on the side. It was tough. It made me appreciate football so much more because I realized that it could be taken from you at anytime.”
Finally, during spring practice and training camp in the summer, the coaching staff realized that Pierce could be the every-down back they so desperately needed.
So did everyone else.
“We knew he was special during camp,” offensive lineman Gino Gradkowski said. “He was making plays and we were like, ‘Wow.’ It’s cool to block for guys like that. I’m just happy for him because he’s a great kid. He’s not an ‘I’ guy. He’s a team guy. It’s cool to see guys like that do well because they deserve it.”
In fact, Pierce is always quick to credit his offensive line for his success. That began right away when he rushed for 484 yards in his first three games, including 200 against Duquesne.
“We taught him right,” Gradkowski said with a laugh.
Pierce hasn’t slowed down since. If anything, he has proved to be an adept receiver, to the point where Keeler said he will play him there in the spring, both to enhance his pass-catching ability and to save his legs for the season.
“The thing that makes AP so unique is that he plays like a senior,” Keeler said. “He never misses a protection. He’s a natural receiver and he runs great routes. His numbers are off the charts in terms of his productivity. He’s only going to keep getting better and better.”
That’s just the way Pierce imagined it - eventually.
“This is great,” Pierce said. “I want the ball in my hands. I want to be the guy to run out the clock in the fourth quarter.”