Charles Opeseyitan didn’t make much of a first impression after transferring to East Central University from the University of Tulsa last fall. Overweight at more than 240 pounds, he was, ironically, lost in a logjam at tailback on a team that hadn’t had a winning season since 2004 and hadn’t won a game since late in the 2008 season.
Even his name was a challenge for his teammates, who christened him simply “Charlie O.” soon after he arrived.
Early in the 2010 season, Opeseyitan was a non-factor as the Tigers struggled to find an offensive identity. Once he got the chance to play, though, his fortunes — and the team’s — turned.
Although he finished his first season at ECU with a modest 427 net rushing yards and a 3.9-yard average, Opeseyitan did something no ECU running back had done in six seasons when he rushed for over 100 yards in three straight games — victories over division rivals Eastern New Mexico, Southeastern and Northeastern — during a late-season surge that lifted the Tigers to their school’s first-ever Lone Star Conference North title in their final year in the conference.
Despite languishing near the bottom of the LSC in total yards once again, the ECU running game — the worst in the conference since the start of the 2006 season — was suddenly relevant again.
And Opeseyitan’s reward for his late-season excellence? Over the winter, ECU recruited two of the most high-profile junior college running backs to ever enter the program in speedsters Chad Winbush and Titus Mobley, leaving Charlie O. and fellow returnees Dominique Massengil and Justin Todd in the position of having to prove themselves all over again.
Instead of sulking about the new challenge facing him, though, Opeseyitan simply decided to prepare himself for the task at hand. He continued the weight loss that helped him emerge as a force in the ECU rushing attack late last fall, reporting to camp at a lean, mean 210 pounds.
“I lost about 40 pounds,” Opeseyitan recalled. “I just regulated what I ate and worked hard in the weight room and on conditioning. I changed my diet a lot. I ate no fast food. I just basically ate what was in the cafeteria, or I made myself a sandwich so I knew what was in it. The biggest thing I did was eating more breakfast so I wasn’t hugry throughout the day.”
His new diet, coupled with the strenuous offseason program designed by ECU strength and conditioning coordinator Zach Womack, left Opeseyitan a new man — literally — as spring practice began. Much quicker than he was last fall but just as strong, Charlie O. entered camp as an example to his teammates and, despite — or, more accurately, because of — his weight loss, a huge roadblock to anyone with designs on taking the starting tailback job away from him.
“I’m conditioned better, and I feel like I can actually keep up with the tempo,” he noted. “I feel like everything has slowed down tremendously, and that’s a great feeling.
“It’s great that we have a lot of backs pushing me (ECU has seven in camp this spring),” Opeseyitan (the only senior running back on the roster) said. “It’s not just two or three of us now, it’s seven, and everybody is out there working.”
Like everyone associated with head coach Tim McCarty’s resurgent program, Opeseyitan is impressed with Winbush and Mobley.
“They’re good — they’s still trying to learn the system,” he said. “Chad is an outside guy, and Titus is quick on his feet. I think we’ll probably have the best backfield in the (new Great American) conference.”
Despite the credentials of his competition and the promise shown by Massengil (who had two 100-yard rushing games) and Todd as freshmen last fall, Opeseyitan said he believes the starting job if still his.
“I do feel like that,” he said. “By no means am I going to be lackadaisical about it. I push myself every day. I look at practice every day like we’re playing for a championship, and I think a lot of my teammates are starting to understand that we have a chance to do something special.
“The running game is going to be a big part of our offense,” Opeseyitan added. “I’m saying this with full confidence — I think we’ll make a playoff run.”
McCarty said that even with Winbush and Mobley in camp, Opeseyitan is a big part of his team’s plans for the 2011 season.
“Charlie O. is a great team player,” McCarty noted. “He created more value for himself during the offseason. He’s got good speed — not great speed — and he’s a really smart runner. He knows how to use his blockers — he knows how to set up a tackler by using his blocker. He’s a smart player. Players constantly create value for themselves, and the more you can do, the more value you have.
“Justin Todd (a former standout at Ada High School) was a great spot player for us on offense and a great player on special teams ast year,” McCarty added. “Everything he did created a value for himself to the team. That’s what we’re trying to get all our players to do.”
The Great American Conference won’t be eligible for an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs in its first two years, but at-large bids will be available. Opeseyitan said the improved talent and camaraderie on an ECU squad that made huge strides from Week 4 to Week 10 of the 2010 season (winning five of seven games) should give the Tigers a legitimate shot at a first-ever Division II playoff berth.
“We feel like the team has gotten a lot closer,” he said. “We’ve got better chemistry — we’re more of a family than a group of individuals. It’s about TEAM. I feel like it’s a better balanced team than when I came here.”
ECU’s beefed-up running game and senior quarterback Tyler Vanderzee will be operating behind a veteran offensive line that returns four seniors. Opeseyitan said having a season with that group should also pay dividends in 2011.
“I came from a different system, and it took about three weeks to adjust to the speed and to flow with them last year,” he recalled. “This year, I feel like I’m on point with them. I literally feel so comfortable back there, it’s ridiculous.”
In one season, the Tigers have been transformed from one of the youngest teams in the LSC into what should be one of the most veteran squads in the GAC. Opeseyitan said one season together has made a huge difference this spring.
“This year it feels like we’re in the left lane going 100 miles an hour,” he noted. “The tempo is upbeat, and it literally looks like we’re out there playing a game against the defense every day. If you can’t get pumped for that, you’re in the wrong sport.
“I feel like we’re going to have a great season,” Opeseyitan said. “We’re coming in with confidence, not arrogance. You don’t win by SAYING you’re going to win — you win by putting the effort in. We’re doing that this year, and it’s wonderful.”