WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- When Purdue leading rusher Ralph Bolden went down with another devastating knee injury in the season finale, the Boilermakers still had a pretty good backup plan.
Akeem Shavers stepped into Bolden's place and earned MVP honors in the Little Caesars Bowl win over Western Michigan, rushing for 149 yards on 22 carries. That was just shy of doubling Shavers' output in any regular season game in 2011, yet he wasn't too surprised by his performance.
"I always knew I could do it," he said. "It was just a matter of getting out there and getting the amount of playing time that I got [in that game]. I was just waiting on my opportunity. I had no problem with the role I was playing, but I also knew I could do way better than what I had been doing."
This season, Shavers may no longer serve as merely a backup plan. Bolden is not practicing this spring as he tries to recover from his third torn ACL since his senior year, leaving Shavers as the team's No. 1 back. The team is hopeful Bolden can come back and regain his effectiveness, but no one is quite sure what to expect after from him so many injuries.
"I'm trying to stay optimistic in my mind that he'll come back and be fully recovered," Shavers said. "I try to tell him every time I see him, 'Bro we've got to get it . I don't care if your knee is messed up or not, we've both got goals to reach.' I try to keep him motivated, and he tries to motivate me."
Shavers was in this same position last spring as a mid-year junior college transfer, taking first-team reps as Bolden worked his way back from injury. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder says he's a totally different player this spring.
"When I first got here, I could barely stay on my feet," he said. "I just tried to go as fast as I could, and I'd end up tripping or something. I've gotten a lot better with my balance, my patience and field vision."
Running backs coach Cornell Jackson put Shavers through several balancing drills and taught him finer points of the game, like how to read defensive ends. It was Jackson who played a big role in getting him to West Lafayette.
Shavers was lightly recruited out of Texarkana, Texas, which he attributes in large part to his high school coach and athletic director getting fired before his senior year.
"It was hard making connections and getting my film out there," he said. "Plus, I went to a small [Texas Class] 2A school, and a lot of people don't make it out of that division."
He eventually wound up at Tyler (Kan.) Junior College and sent out his film to FBS schools. Purdue's Jackson was the first coach to show serious interest. After the Boilers offered a scholarship, Shavers said, other schools like Baylor, Indiana and Texas Tech started pursuing him. But he felt loyal to Jackson.
Head coach Danny Hope calls Shavers "a fast, physical back who finishes runs." Purdue doesn't have a lot of other experienced running backs this spring with Bolden out and the offseason transfer of Reggie Pegram. Akeem Hunt, a sprinter on the school's track team who showed bursts of his potential as a true freshman, and redshirt freshman Doug Gentry are the main competitors for playing time in the backfield right now.
The Boilermakers finished fifth in the Big Ten in rushing last season but liked to spread the ball around. No one averaged more than 12 carries per game, and the return of mobile quarterback Rob Henry gives the backfield another rushing threat this season.
So it's doubtful that Shavers will emerge as a classic, workhorse-type No. 1 back. But if called upon, like he was in December, he'll be ready.
"We all just want a chance," he said. "It's hard for one guy to just make it through a whole game nowadays because there are so many different offenses and we play at such a high tempo and pace. But I know I can do it. I just need the opportunity."