His speed and confidence affected by a series of leg injuries, Eastern Washington running back Sam McPherson finally came into his own last year at North Dakota.
He racked up 118 yards in the first half on eight carries, both career highs at the time.
McPherson may have had twice that total if not for another mishap.
When McPherson peeled off a 55-yard run late in the second quarter, he was caught from behind near the goal line, allowing a North Dakota defender to finish the tackle below his knees.
McPherson heard an immediate snap and felt a shooting pain. He’d broken his fibula, his fourth lower-leg injury since his senior year at Bothell (Washington) High.
Antoine Custer was already the Eagles’ primary running back at the time. Tamarick Pierce was also a viable option.
This latest season-ending injury, McPherson thought, had the potential to bury him on the depth chart the following season.
“I knew if I was going to have any role in the offense, I would have to work insanely hard in the offseason,” said McPherson, who also tore ligaments in his ankle in the North Dakota game.
And that’s what he did.
Up to 875 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 125 carries this season, a healthy McPherson is on pace to be the Eagles’ first 1,000-yard running back since Quincy Forte in 2013.
He could hit the milestone as early as Friday night when fourth-ranked EWU (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky) travels to Portland State (4-6, 3-4) in its regular-season finale. A win would give the Eagles at least a share of the Big Sky Conference crown and likely a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs.
Between a six-month recovery and being part of one EWU’s deepest position groups, McPherson said he never envisioned being the Eagles’ leading rusher this fall.
“Definitely not,” McPherson said. “(Custer) is a freak. Tamarick is a freak, too. I thought after the (All-Big Sky Conference) year (Custer) had last season, he was going to take more reps.
“I didn’t think it would be like it is today, but I couldn’t be more happy with where I’m at right now.”
All three running backs are sharing carries for a top-ranked EWU offense that has also become one of the most balanced units in the country.
McPherson, Custer (525 yards, five TDs) and Pierce (403 yards, six TDs), and shifty quarterback Eric Barriere (354 rushing yards, five TDs) lead a dangerous EWU ground game that has racked up 2,637 yards.
Behind a deep and sizable offensive line, EWU, known mostly for its gaudy passing statistics over the years, is now controlling the clock and the line of scrimmage.
“I remember when I first got here (in 2015), and running backs would get about 10 carries total,”said McPherson, who also has 543 career receiving yards. “It’s great to see us turn into a complete offense.”
Maurice is a running backs guru of sorts, helping develop a stable of standout running backs during North Dakota’s Big Sky title season in 2016.
A running back at UTEP in the early 2000s, Maurice accepted his position at EWU when Best sold him on developing a run game to complement an already touted aerial assault.
McPherson credits his development to Maurice, a Haitian from Miami who played in football-rich Coral Gables, Florida.
“Since he has been here, my game has gotten that much better,” McPherson said. “He’s not as technical as my past coach. He just lets you play, and hones in on the little skills, which make a big difference.”
Maurice credited McPherson for making his job easier.
“He’s a unique case. I’ve never coached a running back like that,” said Maurice, who was also an assistant at Nevada and Purdue. “He’ll be a guy I’ll be talking to my future players about.
“What makes (McPherson) great is that he makes the right decisions, finding the creases and holes. His reads are amazing.”
Tight end Henderson Belk agreed.
“He’s a great cutter,” Belk said. “He makes people miss. He can read the hole, and once he makes the decision, he just goes with it.”
McPherson doesn’t consider himself a burner, just a football player with the speed of a center fielder in baseball.
Before he made football his primary focus, McPherson was an all-conference baseball player at Bothell, drawing interest, he said, from Oregon, Saint Mary’s, Virginia Commonwealth and a few small schools.
Baseball is his favorite sport, he said, but football provided him more opportunities. EWU, Montana, Portland State, UC Davis, Army, Air Force, Princeton and Cornell all wanted the Bothell running back.
The son of an aeronautical engineer, McPherson is studying mechanical engineering at EWU and said that he may follow in his dad’s footsteps.
McPherson, who sports a 3.75 grade-point average, has also served on Eastern Washington University’s student-athlete advisory committee the last three years. McPherson is also one of 169 college football players nominated to the AFCA Good Works Team, given to players who help their school and community.
“He’s probably one of the more mature guys I’ve ever coached,” Maurice said. “Coming in, he was very accepting of me. He’s open to trying new things. He’s a guy who wants to get better, and it’s shown.”