MOSCOW, Idaho – When Aaron Duckworth heard that a UNLV television broadcaster last week compared his physique and running style to former NFL All-Pro running back Maurice Jones-Drew, he responded with a surprised look … and a smile.
“That’s awesome that he thinks that,” Idaho’s starting running back said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
The comparison to Jones-Drew would be flattering to most college tailbacks, but it’s especially meaningful to Duckworth. Yes, like Jones-Drew, the 5-foot-8 junior is a short, explosive back with powerful legs.
But it means even more because Duckworth hails from a suburb of Jacksonville and wore the same number early in high school as Jones-Drew, who spent all but one year of his nine-year pro career with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
How did Duckworth land 2,800 miles away from his hometown of Orange Park, Florida, to play college football for the Vandals? Pretty much the same way that the other eight members of the UI football team from Florida got to Moscow.
“Coach (Paul) Petrino and coach (Kris) Cinkovich have done a terrific job down there,” said Jason Shumaker, Idaho’s recruiting coordinator. “And because those (high school) coaches know them they trust them, and it’s been really good for us. We’ve got a bunch of good players that are helping us out from there.”
Wide receiver Jacob Sannon, cornerback Dorian Clark (out for the year with a shoulder injury) and safety Jordan Grabski are other notable Idaho players from Florida. But Duckworth has contributed the most of any Floridian on the roster this season for the 2-2 Vandals.
Entering Saturday’s homecoming game with Troy (2 p.m., ESPN3), Duckworth is fifth in the Sun Belt in rushing yards (271) and tied for the conference lead in rushing touchdowns (three). He carried for 90 yards in Idaho’s 33-30 overtime win at UNLV.
The Vandals courted Duckworth out of Oakleaf High School for a long time, Shumaker said – at least longer than they typically do with Florida prospects. They’ll often get a tip from a Florida high school coach in January, a month before signing day, about an under-recruited player.
But Duckworth had seven or eight scholarship offers and decided in July 2013, before his senior season, to commit to UAB. About two weeks before signing day, Idaho coaches – led by Cinkovich – reconnected with Duckworth and convinced him to take an official visit.
“Being here on my visit, Coach Cink did a great job recruiting me,” Duckworth said. “And I looked forward to meeting him in person. It was awesome. Felt like a place I wanted to be. This place made me feel like (I had) a second home.”
When Duckworth signed, Petrino noted that he had known his high school coach, Derek Chipoletti, “forever.” Chipoletti has since moved on from Oakleaf, but the relationships that Petrino and Cinkovich have forged in Florida are still paying off.
One example: A couple weeks after signing day this year, Idaho plucked Brandon Luckett, a promising true freshman receiver, out of Bradenton, which is Sannon and Grabski’s hometown.
For every Florida recruit, the UI coaching staff encourages them to visit in January, when it’s typically gray and cold in Moscow. That way they can make sure it’s the place for them.
“It will test them early on if they’re really into it,” Shumaker said. “It’s a long way (from Florida), but I think that’s great for kids. It forces those kids to grow up.”
Shumaker credits Duckworth’s parents for preparing him to attend college and play football on the other side of the country. “His parents are great and have done a terrific job with him.”
Now, with the Vandals at .500 heading into Sun Belt play, the speedy running back is ready to fulfill his main goal: securing a spot in a bowl game.
“I want to send the seniors off on a good note – on a great note, actually,” Duckworth said. “I know the work we put in all summer and fall camp, and I know how bad our team wants it.”
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