On his 19th carry against Eastern Michigan on Saturday, in low-90 degree heat, running back A.J. Ouellette leapt over a lunging defensive back on his way to a 10-yard gain and a first down.
Ouellette knows that in matchups between a ball carrier and a tackler, the low man usually wins. That’s why he often crouches forward or lowers his shoulder, bowling his 5-foot-9, 205-pound frame ahead more effectively than taller running backs could.
The hurdle wasn’t random or instinctual. It was a move he’d premeditated in a film session several days before.
“None of us were expecting that on that long drive,” center Jake Pruehs said. “It’s just little things like that that he takes into account that no other backs would do.”
After tearing three ligaments in his left foot in the first quarter of Ohio’s first game of 2016, Ouellette, a redshirt junior, is gashing opposing defenses at full health through four games this year.
He took all but five of Ohio’s running back touches in the second half against EMU, evidence that he can be called upon as the workhorse in the Bobcat backfield.
“I believe that’s something I thrive on,” Ouellette said. “As the game goes on, the more touches I get, the better I get.”
Ouellette recorded 187 all-purpose yards (including 145 yards rushing) against the Eagles. He grabbed Mid-American Conference East Offensive Player of the Week honors for the second week in a row, where he's averaged close to seven yards per carry in that span.
His physical running style wears defenses down. And though he takes his share of bumps and bruises, initiating contact with defenders will always be part of his game.
“It got me here,” he said. “It got me my starting spot. And I can’t change anything that I’m good at so I’m staying with that style.”
He called his Lisfranc tear last season “a freak accident.” Taking a handoff out of the backfield, he made a simple cut and his foot gave out.
The injury isn’t something he thinks about now, as he continues to make cuts just like that fateful one last fall.
“It could happen to anyone,” he said. “Basically, the way I think of it is my time was due, I already had mine, so it’s not gonna happen again.”
No longer the fresh-faced walk on from 2014, Ouellette — who rose from fifth on the depth chart to a team captain in three years — now sports a full, dirty blond beard and a boatload of experience.
The Bobcats have two other running backs, redshirt senior Dorian Brown and freshman Julian Ross, who’ve played consistently alongside Ouellette so far this year. But he is expected to see his role increase as conference play enters full swing in two weeks.
Combining size, athleticism and preparation with a clean bill of health, Ouellette figures to be up for the task.
“He is special in a lot of ways,” Ohio coach Frank Solich said. “He's coming off a year that was difficult for him and difficult for us, and it's hard to come off a year like that and play well, but that's exactly what he's doing.”