Just when Breck Turner believes he has turned the proverbial corner of big-time college football, reality comes back to hit him harder than any defensive lineman could.
A three-star recruit out of Norwalk, Turner arrived at Eastern Michigan University in the fall of 2015 as an All-Ohio Player of the Year and Mr. Football finalist. But in a very crowded backfield, Turner finds himself getting touches only sporadically through his redshirt junior season.
The 2015 NHS graduate carried the ball 17 times for 95 yards and a touchdown over two games to end the regular season — but then didn’t get a single rushing attempt in last Friday’s Camellia Bowl loss vs. Georgia Southern.
Anyone who saw Turner play locally for the Truckers has been shocked by that. But it was a trend throughout the entire 2018 season — and three years in general — for Turner.
“Honestly, it has been a little frustrating,” Turner said. “Just from preparing and working hard every week … even in the offseason, preparing and doing my best at absolutely everything I can do.
“But then when you get to the game and only get one or two carries, it’s hard,” he added. “I’ve been working hard every day, and to not be able to go out there and show what I can really do is frustrating.”
But one thing you won’t find out of Turner is a pouting, spiteful attitude. He understands the life of Division I college football. Nothing is ever given in what has evolved more and more into a cutthroat level of the sport.
“Our coaches are trying to get one of us in the flow, and whoever they are feeling that day, that is who they roll with,” Turner said. “But I have one more year, and I have to be focused throughout this whole offseason — and that started right after we unfortunately lost our bowl game last week.
“If I can be the best version of myself that I can be, then I’ll have my best opportunity to be on the field next year,” he added. “But it’s not about me, it’s about the team. I just think we’ll be a good team with good running backs. If I’m able to do what I know I can do, then I feel like … that will prove to myself that I’m still that guy from Norwalk.”
In 12 games this season, Turner ran 45 times for 182 yards and two TDs. He was one of six running backs who totaled anywhere from 45-to-135 attempts and anywhere from 182-to-617 yards in a balanced Eagles’ backfield.
But Turner’s past two seasons combined aren’t what he put up as a redshirt sophomore in 2016. That year, he ran 77 times for 417 yards and 4 TDs and got to play with the Eagles in the Bahamas Bowl.
That all made sense as a natural progression for those who saw Turner at Norwalk, myself included. I’m too young to go back to the days of Brad Mason and John McCarty among others. But Turner was special at Norwalk. He ran for 2,795 yards and 32 TDs for the Truckers in 12 games in 2014. Only sitting out many fourth quarters in an 11-1 season stopped him from 3,000 yards.
Instead, these past two years brought an all-too-common reality for NCAA student-athletes. The big fish in a small pond at Norwalk is now the size of a lake, where generally, most of the talent is equal.
But even using that mentality of going to a Div. I program from a smaller town, this isn’t typical — the playing of six different running backs. Nothing prepares you for that.
“In high school, I feel like I never really went through any type of adversity,” Turner said. “Everything came easy. Football came extremely easy, and to an extent basketball and track. I had a lot of success early, and even when I got to college that redshirt freshman year, I success on the field.
“But these last two years, it wasn’t that successful and I had to learn how to handle that,” he added. “I learned how to support and encourage my teammates, doing those kinds of things. I learned how to work harder and stay focused, and my faith gets stronger every time something bad happens. Iv’e had to learn that process.”
What struck me unique about Turner was his view on the situation. He’s made a lot of close friends in college. He scored a go-ahead touchdown in an upset win at Purdue this season, and got a free mini-vacation and played in the aforementioned Bahamas Bowl.
And oh by the way, his education that will see him graduate in April with a sports management major was free.
“And I’m learning a lot about myself, where I’m at in life and where my faith is at and who I am as a person,” Turner said. “I’m not sure if I would have experienced that anywhere else. I might have, but maybe not.
“I wish these last two years have been different personally, but I’ve grown as a person,” he added. “And if I’m able to work hard this offseason and do what I’m able to do — I’ll be the happiest guy alive.”
Perhaps the key part of the big picture here for Turner is this: It’s not over. Three of the six players in that backfield have played their last game for Eastern. Yes, new recruits and younger players will cycle in — but Turner is going to have possibly his best chance at significant touches.
“I feel like if I’m the best version of myself, I can be on the field more than I’ve ever been,” he said. “If I can stay focused, concentrate on my life, take out all the distractions and put everything I can into this last year — I can do the things I’ve wanted to do for the past few years that I haven’t been able to do.”
As the calendar soon turns to 2019, Turner says that accountability has to start with him.
“It’s not on anyone but myself … if I’m not playing, then I have to be better,” he said. “In the past, things always came easy to me. I never really knew how to adjust when things didn’t go my way.
“That has been one of the things I’ve learned and am still learning,” Turner added. “But I truly believe and truly know, if I am the absolute best I can be, then I’ll be able to be out there a lot more than I have past few years.”