For the better part of two years, Antoinne Jimmerson prepared for the opportunity he knew would come sometime down the line.
He lifted weights, packed on 20 pounds of muscle, ran hard in practice and learned everything he could from Lance Dunbar, his record-setting predecessor.
None of that work Jimmerson put in after his senior season in high school made him feel better than his fourth carry in North Texas’ win over Texas Southern last week.
Jimmerson broke through the line and burst downfield for 39 yards. Suddenly, the redshirt freshman started to feel like himself again.
Jimmerson was a star for one of the state’s elite programs at DeSoto, averaging 6.8 yards a carry and scoring three touchdowns in four playoffs games as a senior.
That talent was what led UNT to sign him and essentially stash him away for the future. More and more, it looks like the future is now.
“I got my opportunity and showed what I could do,” Jimmerson said. “That was my second game after not playing for two years. The first game I played a little. This game I felt more like I did in high school where I was in a groove. I feel confident now.”
UNT will need Jimmerson to display that confidence heading its game against No. 15 Kansas State on Saturday in Manhattan.
The Mean Green scared the Wildcats two years ago before Kansas State pulled away for a 49-41 win in the final game at Fouts Field.
This is a much different Wildcats team, one that appeared to find its form while demolishing Miami of Florida 52-13 last week.
Kansas State limited Miami to 40 rushing yards on 29 carries and ranks 16th nationally with an average of 67.5 rushing yards allowed a game. UNT will have to fare a lot better running the ball against the Wildcats than Missouri State or Miami did to have a chance to pull the upset, especially considering how much the Mean Green has struggled to throw the ball.
UNT has just 288 passing yards through two games.
Getting the running game going against Kansas State could be a challenge.
“When you obliterate a team like they did last Saturday in Miami, we know what we are getting into,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “This is a talented, experienced, physical, confident football team.”
UNT will stick to its three-back rotation that also includes Brandin Byrd and Jeremy Brown, but there is little doubt that Jimmerson is in position to see his role expand.
That has been the plan ever since some smart recruiting helped UNT land Jimmerson, who was overlooked by other programs. College coaches across the country visit DeSoto every year, but none of them saw Jimmerson during spring practice before his senior season. He was out with a broken foot.
Jimmerson visited Iowa but ended up signing with UNT.
“It was probably a blessing because playing at another school was not for me,” Jimmerson said. “I came here, worked hard and feel like I’m at home. I like it here. It’s where I fit in.”
It’s also where he developed quickly while sitting and watching Dunbar finish his career.
Jimmerson said he learned from the experience and benefitted from working in the Mean Green’s conditioning program under Frank Wintrich.
Jimmerson is listed at 219 pounds now, well over the 198 pounds he weighed when he arrived in Denton.
UNT’s players and coaches could see the progress Jimmerson was making in practice while few others saw him over the last year.
“I knew since his freshman year that he would be good just by watching him run and in the weight room,” said defensive tackle Ryan Boutwell, who faces Jimmerson in practice daily. “He’s strong in his lower body. He’s short, but he has a low center of gravity and a good sense of balance. As small as he is, he’s a physical runner. If you get in his way, he will run you over.”
Jimmerson began to show those attributes in the Mean Green’s win over TSU and raised hopes that he could be the next in a long line of great running backs.
UNT had a pair of national rushing champions in Patrick Cobbs and Jamario Thomas in 2003 and 2004. Dunbar became UNT’s all-time leading rusher last season and is now with the Cowboys. Cobbs also went on to play in the NFL.
Those players helped establish UNT’s reputation as something of a running back factory.
With Brown in his last season and Byrd starting as a junior, Jimmerson seems well positioned to continue to develop and eventually carry on those players’ legacy.
“For a redshirt freshman to do what he did Saturday is encouraging,” McCarney said. “He excites the whole team when he carries the ball. He’s physical, he’s violent, he’s tough, he has a lot of energy and a lot of personality.”
He’s also just getting started. For UNT, that might be the most encouraging sign of all.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .