By Jerry Briggs
Perhaps only the gods of college football know if Jalen Rhodes’ 80-yard touchdown run against Southern Mississippi last week will serve as a turning point in the season for the UTSA Roadrunners.
If nothing else, then it might serve as a metaphor for his star-crossed career.
Without a doubt, it’s been a long run for Rhodes in a sojourn that has spanned five years, dating back to his days at Rowlett High School.
For Rhodes, the journey has not only tested his skill, but also his will.
With UTSA set to play at Rice on Saturday, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound sophomore seemed at ease in an interview earlier this week, talking about everything that has transpired since he emerged in 2011 as one of the top football players in the state as a high school junior.
Since then, he has sweated out two career-altering injuries, two surgeries and a lot of long nights wondering if things would ever work out.
“Basically it’s just patience and enduring everything I’ve been through, and knowing there’s going to be good things coming out of it in the end,” Rhodes said. “(It’s) just being patient and understanding I’m a blessed individual, and that my time will come.”
At one point, Rhodes seemed destined to play on a bigger stage, having committed to Texas Tech after the 2011 season, after he had rushed for 1,491 yards and 22 touchdowns.
But by his senior year in 2012, the three-star recruit’s plan started to unravel when he tore an ACL in his right knee.
Rhodes’ plan to play in the Big 12 fell apart completely when coach Tommy Tuberville left Tech after the season for Cincinnati. Sensing that new Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury didn’t want him, he re-opened his recruiting.
In stepped the Roadrunners, who offered him a scholarship -- with a caveat.
Coaches wanted him to gray shirt, or, sit out one year, before signing as part of the next class. Consequently, Rhodes sat out a year and enrolled at UTSA in the spring of 2014.
Asked about the agreement with former UTSA coach Larry Coker, Rhodes said he was OK with the plan.
“Oh, yes sir,” he said. “There’s not too many schools that would take a risk on someone who didn’t get a chance to finish out their senior year (of high school), coming in injured. I was blessed with the opportunity.”
It didn’t take long before rotten luck would strike Rhodes again, and this time, it was more painful than before. He tore four ligaments in his left foot on the first day of UTSA’s 2014 spring practice.
On his first day with the team, on his first repetition at practice, he was hurt again, out for the year.
“I just remember making contact with the ground and getting up and not being able to put pressure on my left foot,” he said. “Just a freak accident.”
After surgery, Rhodes tried his best to stay positive. He tried to make the best of things. He said he relied on his family for guidance.
“Really, it was just my mother and my father, talking to me about being patient and (telling me) how God will deliver your blessings when it’s your time,” he said. “(It was) just being patient and keeping my head on right, and worrying about other things on my plate, my school (work), just upholding the standard of becoming a young man.”
Since his return to football in 2015, Rhodes has had his ups and downs as UTSA’s No. 2 back behind Jarveon Williams.
He gained 66 yards and scored a touchdown in UTSA’s season opener last year at Arizona. Later in the season, with Williams rolling toward a 1,000-yard season, he didn’t get the ball quite as much.
Earlier this fall, in the debut of first-year coach Frank Wilson, things picked up for him when he rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown in a victory against Alabama State.
But his performance in a stunning, 55-32 victory over Southern Miss last weekend -- 165 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 14 carries – carried much greater impact.
First, it helped UTSA (2-3 overall, 1-1 in Conference USA) break a three-game losing streak and remain in the league race heading into this weekend’s game at Rice (0-5, 0-3).
Second, it may have altered the way scouts now view UTSA heading into the second half of the season.
A team that didn’t show much of a running game early in the year now features two backs coming off 100-yard performances in Rhodes and Williams (122 yards on 15 carries).
Rhodes is actually leading the team in rushing through five games with 362 yards on 60 carries for a hefty 6 yards per carry. Williams, a senior, has produced 253 yards after being slowed in September with an ankle sprain.
Talking to reporters Monday, Williams said he couldn’t be happier about the team’s progress and how his friend and roommate has contributed to it.
He said he is proud of the way Rhodes has emerged as a key player on the team, putting the injuries and adversity behind him.
“You know, that kind of stuff takes a toll on your mental state,” Williams said. “Especially with him coming in late (as a gray shirt) and already coming off an ACL injury. Being hurt twice and missing almost three years, it can confuse your thoughts.”
Defensive lineman Kevin Strong Jr. has been struck since his recruiting visit to UTSA with Rhodes’ positive attitude and energy. He said the two have since become friends and often talk about their dream of making it to the National Football League.
“I mean, he’s a little dude, but he’s a tough dude,” Strong said. “Like I said, we talk all the time. Jalen’s just really motivated. We both got this thing. We got a saying, ‘Get to the money.’ We both want to get to the league. We both want to get to the money, and we’re both going to work hard.”
In terms of what drives him as an athlete, Rhodes said he doesn’t dwell much on the past, but he said he does remember how things failed to work out for him at Texas Tech.
“Everything in my life has happened for a reason,” he said. “But I would say it’s a good deal of motivation, because anyone that could tell me to my face that I’m not good enough, you know, that sparked something in me.”
Wilson said both Rhodes and Williams are benefiting from the offense’s improvement as a unit. The offense rolled to a school-record 532 yards last week. The rushing attack accounted for a school-record 339.
“You know what?” Wilson said. “For (Rhodes), a lot of it was his health. He was nicked early on, even in the first game. So, (in) the games following, I’d say he was playing probably 80 percent. Now he’s healthy enough … and it’s allowing him to have success.”
As the Owls prepare for the Roadrunners, they surely know by now what Rhodes did last week to the Golden Eagles.
In the first half, Southern Miss manufactured back-to-back, long touchdown drives to pull within 14 points of fast-starting UTSA.
Not to be denied, the Roadrunners answered, unleashing Rhodes on one of the most memorable plays of the season, an 80-yarder up the middle and into the north end zone of the Alamodome, to boost the lead back to 21.
On the sideline, UTSA players threw their fists in the air, celebrating a player who had stuck it out through some hard times in his life.
As Rhodes returned to the sideline -- his long run in the record books -- Williams greeted him with a hug and words of encouragement.
Recalled Rhodes, “He was screaming (at me), ‘Good job. Good job.’ I can’t really repeat everything (he said), but the main part was, ‘Good job.’ ”