Even though he's a year or two away from beginning his pro career, Southern Miss running back Damion Fletcher admits he paid close attention to this year's NFL Draft.
Conference USA had a running back selected in each of the first three rounds. The Tennessee Titans took East Carolina's Chris Johnson in the first round, Tulane's Matt Forte went to the Chicago Bears in the second round and the Detroit Lions chose 2007 NCAA rushing leader Kevin Smith of UCF with the opening pick of the third round.
Fletcher couldn't help but wonder if he might eventually become the next Conference USA rusher to make the jump to the NFL. After all, he ran for more yards than Johnson last year and could finish his career with higher rushing totals than Forte or Smith.
"I don't know exactly where I'd put myself against them," Fletcher said. "They're all great players. But I'm most definitely up there with them."
In fact, no active player has rushed for more yards the past two seasons than Fletcher, who followed up a 1,388-yard freshman season by running for a school-record 1,586 yards last season. If Fletcher continues that rate of progress, he could ensure that Conference USA produces the nation's top rusher for the second consecutive year.
Fletcher's impressive production probably won't make him as attractive a pro prospect as Johnson, Forte or Smith. Fletcher, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound junior from Biloxi, Miss., lacks Johnson's world-class speed and doesn't have the size of Forte or Smith. But there's no doubting whether Fletcher has the maturity to play at the next level. Fletcher won't turn 21 until July 1, but he already has overcome more adversity than most people encounter in a lifetime.
Fletcher was a high school senior three years ago when Hurricane Katrina forced him to move to an aunt's house in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. He returned to Mississippi only after Biloxi High announced it would indeed still have a football season.
He returned home to a city in ruins.
"We lost everything," Fletcher said. "The whole house got completely wiped out. It hit me hard. When I went down to my old neighborhood, everything I grew up with – all the buildings, my elementary school, everything – it was all wiped out, just completely gone. It was kind of unreal."
All the ribbons and trophies Fletcher had won throughout his life also were washed away. He missed one particular item most of all.
"I had my letter that Southern (Miss) sent me to offer me my scholarship," Fletcher said. "That was important to me. But I got another one, though."
Fletcher got another one because former Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower continued contacting him even when other schools lost track of him after his move to Florida. Fletcher committed to the Golden Eagles before he even returned to Mississippi.
Though his college plans were in order, Fletcher still had to go about finding a place to live after he lost his home and most of his possessions. He was alone in Mississippi because his mother and grandmother had moved to California.
That's when Fletcher learned the value of teamwork extends far beyond the football field. Biloxi assistant coach Joseph St. Amant also had lost his home in the hurricane, but he found a place to stay by renting a house that had made it through the storm. Fletcher spent his senior year living in that house with St. Amant and the coach's pregnant wife.
"It was tough on all of us," St. Amant said, "but we could kind of relate to one another because we'd all lost everything we had. It was tough, but it was tough on everybody. Everyone in the community had the same thing going on."
This was hardly the first time Fletcher received assistance from a hometown that always sensed something special about him. Fletcher's potential was apparent at an early age to his classmates and teachers. His athleticism stood out whether he was holding a ball or a racket.
Vickie Patterson, a physical education teacher at Michele Seventh Grade in Biloxi, understood Fletcher's capabilities as soon as she saw him playing badminton for the first time.
"He'd never picked up a racket," Patterson said. "In two days, he was beating everyone in the seventh, eighth and ninth grade. You could tell right then. His stop-and-start, his ability to change direction – I was just in awe."
Patterson helped make sure Fletcher didn't waste that ability. She mentored Fletcher through most of his teen years and made sure nothing interfered with his path to college. She'd take him out to eat if he received good grades. She helped him overcome his fear of public speaking. She'd check with teachers to make sure he was keeping up with his schoolwork.
"After 9-11, I was watching television and President Bush said all of us need to do something for someone else," Patterson said. "I said this was my mission, to make sure he had everything a normal child has (and) that he makes it to college with a football scholarship, whether it was buying him a yearbook, prom clothes and food or picking him up from football games and practice."
Fletcher has rewarded her faith. The guy who assumed he would get redshirted his freshman year at Southern Miss instead emerged as an impact player from the moment he put on a uniform. Patterson and her daughter, Randi, drew a few chuckles when they arrived at Florida Field for the Golden Eagles' season-opener wearing Fletcher's No. 25 jersey.
"Who's No. 25?" Randi was asked.
"You'll know after the game," she replied.
Sure enough, Fletcher rushed for 89 yards on 18 carries in a 34-7 loss to the Gators. Two weeks later, he ran for 177 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-17 rout of North Carolina State.
Fletcher ranked 11th in the nation in rushing his freshman year and was 13th last season, when he won the Conerly Trophy as the most outstanding college football player in Mississippi.
HOW HE MEASURES UP
Southern Miss running back Damion Fletcher's statistics through his first two years are comparable to the production of Conference USA rivals Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Kevin Smith, who were selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.
All that acclaim hasn't caused Fletcher to lose his sense of perspective. When he's not playing football, he often can be found in Biloxi playing volleyball, badminton or basketball with local children. He has developed into such a local success story that Patterson has put a poster with various pictures of Fletcher in her classroom to give her students evidence that they can reach their goals.
"It says, 'Damion did it. So can you,' '' Patterson said.
While it's tempting to dismiss Fletcher's career accomplishments because Conference USA teams have trouble stopping the run (the league featured seven of the 30 worst run defenses in the nation last season), he also has gained big chunks of yardage against tougher competition. One year after that big debut performance against Florida, Fletcher closed his sophomore season by rushing for 155 yards in a PapaJohns.com Bowl loss to Cincinnati.
He is spending the offseason preparing for his new role under first-year coach Larry Fedora, known for balanced, high-powered attacks he installed as an offensive coordinator at Florida and Oklahoma State. Fletcher has wasted no time winning the respect of the new coaching staff.
"The thing that's surprised me more than anything is the size of his heart," Southern Miss running backs coach Frank Wilson said.
"He plays the game the way it's meant to be played – with tremendous effort and passion. You can't account for those things off film. He's just a guy who puts his hard hat on, goes to work every day and practices as hard as any kid we have on the team."
Fletcher's passion for the game stems in part from everything he endured three years ago. After you've seen your house reduced to rubble, you quickly understand the folly in taking anything for granted. That's why he now tries to live every moment to its fullest, whether he's giving back to the community or working toward a pro career that suddenly seems much more realistic in the wake of the Conference USA draft harvest.
"When you go through something like that, it just makes you stronger as a person," Fletcher said.
"You apply that to every aspect of your life. Everything you want to do, you do to the fullest because you never know when it will be taken away.
"Football is definitely one of those games that can be taken away in an instant. I approach every day like it's my last day out there."
Then again, the past few weeks have shown him he just might get the chance to make a living at this game for many more days to come.
Southern Miss' Damion Fletcher isn't the only outstanding running back who doesn't play in a big-time conference. In fact, eight of the top 16 rushers in the nation last year played for schools outside the "Big Six" conferences. Here are a dozen other productive running backs from non-Big Six programs along with their 2007 stats.
KEY STATS: 163 carries, 1,060 yards, 6.5 ypc, nine TDs
THE BUZZ: Arnold has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons and gained 225 yards last season in a victory over Louisiana-Lafayette.
KEY STATS: 280 carries, 1,021 yards, 5.7 ypc, seven TDs
THE BUZZ: This three-time 1,000-yard rusher reached the century mark in each of his final four games last season, including a 113-yard effort against Tennessee. He's trying to become just the seventh player in Division I-A history with four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
KEY STATS: 207 carries, 1,041 yards, 5.0 ypc, 16 TDs
THE BUZZ: The former Fiesta Bowl hero leads all active running backs in career rushing yards (3,418) and tops all active players in rushing touchdowns (45).
KEY STATS: 267 carries, 1,420 yards, 5.3 ypc, 15 TDs
THE BUZZ: Lippincott rushed for 187 yards and four TDs in a loss to Boise State last year and gained 241 yards against Utah State the following week.