The smallish running back has gone from being ignored on the recruiting trail to coveted in many ways, something that Chesapeake (Va.) Oscar Smith standout J.C. Coleman knows very well. The 5-foot-7, 170-pounder still has to deal with doubters regarding his size, but recent pioneers at the position have helped pave the way.
Darren Sproles, Maurice Jones-Drew, Steve Slaton, Mike Hart, Ray Rice and most recently LaMichael James all set the college football world on fire not only with their speed and ability to make people miss in the open field, but also with their power, determination and pass-catching skills. Coleman, who hails from the talent-rich Hampton Roads area, hopes to be one of the next in line.
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The Hampton Roads region of Virginia is known for its high level of high school football and depth of talent. Over the last two years the fans in the region have had the pleasure to watch Coleman tear apart opposing defenses. What started off as a bit of a novelty at Kings Fork High School his freshman year turned into a heated recruiting battle for his services. His commitment to Virginia Tech ended the tug-of-war, but the questions about his size remain.
"I hear about it quite a bit," Coleman said. "From opposing coaches to players to fans, I get tired of talking about it a bit, but I use it as motivation to prove everyone wrong and show that size doesn't make a bit of difference. The turning point for me was going to Oscar Smith my sophomore year and playing under coach (Richard) Morgan. He taught me a lot and playing in a spread offense has helped me become a better pass catcher and a better blocker. I'm the only one back there for blitz pickup and I pride myself on being a good blocker."
Coleman has lived in the Virginia Beach area his entire life, and began to play football at 4 years old. Through the years as he continued to develop his speed and athleticism, he also began to realize that his height was not going to progress at the same level.
"I just battled against it with my work ethic in the weight room," Coleman said. "I realize I won't ever be tall, so I always make sure to work hard in the weight room, and I'm always doing things to work on my speed."
Over time, Coleman noticed other backs that didn't have great size having success.
"It's something I always use," said Coleman of seeing the success of others. "Even my coach uses it. I just always want to have in my mind that it can be done, because there are guys out there that are my height and have made it to the NFL and are successful. Guys like Darren Sproles, Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew."
While his height is something that he has fought to overcome, it still did not take Coleman very long to realize that he had what it took to play football at the next level.
"I knew I could play D-I football before my sophomore year," Coleman said. "I went to a few combines and camps, and I pretty much dominated them. Then I followed that with a great sophomore season. After that, I pretty much knew that I would be able to play D-I football, and then a few offers rolled in."
When those first few offers came in, Coleman knew that a lifelong dream would be realized.
"It felt real good, because my whole freshman year I read a lot of things that said, 'In order to be a D-I player, you have to be this size or that speed', and reading those things was kind of discouraging," he said. "So to finally get an offer, it was huge."
And then Coleman finally took it to the next level and made a commitment to Virginia Tech earlier this year.
"That was even better," said Coleman. "It was like a huge burden was off my back to know that I get to get a free education and play football while doing it. It was a dream come true."
What made this dream even more special was that Coleman will be playing his college football at one of the elite programs in the country.
"It's very special to be committed to them," said Coleman. "Everybody doesn't get that opportunity to play big-time college football, so for my size, to be committed to a program with such a winning tradition, in the ACC, is special. I can't wait to get in there and start playing."
Even though Virginia Tech has had some bigger backs with success in recent years, such as Kevin Jones, Lee Suggs, Ryan Williams, Darren Evans and now David Wilson, Coleman feels he will fit in well.
"They aren't talking about changing anything for me," he said. "I know I could be used out of the backfield or in the slot, but they think I can be an every-down back as well. In our spread offense in high school I do a lot of things between the tackles, outside the tackle, out of the backfield and blocking so I think I can be a complete back in college."
After rushing for 1,420 yards during his junior season, Coleman set a few goals for himself this fall.
"I really want to rush for over 2,000 yards," Coleman said. "We run a spread system, so it's been deemed 'impossible' by so many people. I just want to prove people wrong again."
Not surprisingly, Coleman is off to another fantastic start this fall, and has positioned himself to make a run of his goal of 2,000 rushing yards.
"In four games I think I have about 640 yards rushing and 200 yards receiving, with 10 rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown," said Coleman.
And he has been able to compare himself to one of the other top athletes in the Mid-Atlantic area head-to-head earlier this season.
"We played Gilman out of Baltimore and I knew about Cyrus Jones and he's another sort of undersized guy who plays with a lot of heart and is more physical than you'd expect," he said. "The game was billed me versus him, but for both of us it was about winning. We lost the game (51-27) which was disappointing but when it came to on the field production, Cyrus and I both did well."
In that game, Coleman rushed for 156 yards and two scores including a 79-yard TD, while Jones rushed for 193 yards and three touchdowns.
"It's always good to compare yourself in a game situation to another top player," he said. "I think we both had good games, but we were disappointed with the outcome obviously. But it was another chance for me to show I can compete against top competition and that size doesn't matter."
And Coleman will continue to fight that battle in college and beyond.