These days Bernard Pierce has renewed confidence.
And why shouldnt he?
Its a new season for the Temple running back and the pressure of winning the Heisman Trophy seems to have subsided.
Gone are the injuries to his ankle and shoulder and symptoms of a concussion.
Im good, Pierce said. Im straight.
Now comes the hard part: Proving it.
Head coach Al Golden's departure for Miami has left Pierce a major responsibility. Steve Addazio is the new man in charge, and while former University of Florida offensive coordinator brings with him a plethora of football knowledge, its Pierce that those around Temples campus will see as the face of the team.
Pierce wants this season to be different. Yes, he wants the ball, and even more, he wants to help the Owls have a winning season. But keep the hype. Hold the accolades and Heisman hoopla. Hes seen firsthand what all that attention does, and its not positive.
Once I heard the whole Heisman hype, Pierce recalled, it kind of got to me. I was like, Damn, Ive got to perform. Now Im a little more relaxed now. Its about the team now. Its not about the whole Heisman candidacy and putting pressure on me. Its about us as a team now.
It was in 2009 Pierce opened eyes. He rushed for 1,361 yards and 16 touchdowns. He had huge breakout games against Toledo (40 carries for 212 yards and three touchdowns) and another against Navy (29 carries for 267 yards and two TDs).
Pierce led the led the Mid-American Conference in rushing yards and helped the Owls finish the season 9-4 to claim a piece of the MAC East Division title and advance to the EagleBank Bowl (a 30-21 loss to UCLA). He helped Golden win the MAC Coach of the Year, and pretty much put Temple back on the map in the college football world.
But last season, those results could not be duplicated for Pierce or the Owls. For Pierce, his rushing yards fell to 728, touchdowns fell to 10 and he played fewer games (eight), missing time because of injuries. Temple finished 8-4 with no bowl appearance.
It wasnt the type season I was expecting, Pierce said. The injuries definitely do take a toll on you. Your whole mental state, like I wouldnt say I was depressed, but it was like, Cmon man. Again? It was like more on the lines of that.
Though injuries didnt help, the mental part was the biggest culprit.
Mentality, he said. Injuries, off-the-field issues I would put a lot of pressure on myself. Put everything on me, thinking it was my fault, thinking I got to fix this. I've got to do this. I've got to do that.
Then, I realized I have to calm down and play my part and do what I have to do. I had that pressure on myself, like I had to do good. Thats what messed my whole mentality up.
Addazio knew what Pierce was going through and what a distraction it was, even though he was no where close to North Philly. Addazio was around quarterback Tim Tebow when he won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 while at Florida, so he has some experience in the hype department.
Bernard just needs to be Bernard, Addazio said. Work hard. Work on being a great football player, a great person. Work on getting his degree. He doesnt need all those outside distractions.
Addazio is impressed with the work ethic that Pierce has shown so far. He said he wouldnt hesitate to put the ball in Pierces hands, hoping that the junior running back will do what he did in 2009 make plays.
Obviously, when you have a tailback like Bernard you want to hand the ball deep to him and let him run.
Pierce said that he fixed his diet over the off-season, eating everything in efforts to put on more weight. He said he ran a lot, iced his body everyday and fixed his mentality by reading the playbook every night.
Classes are over, he said. Now its just football.
As of now, Addazio hasnt identified who would be the leader of this years team, and wouldnt count Pierce out, though the junior running back said thats not a role that suits him.
I wouldnt classify myself as a leader, said Pierce. Im not a vocal person. Im more of an I-lead-by-example type. I would say Im more of an on-the-field leader.
I think he can become that guy with his play and his work ethic, Addazio explained. Guys watch how guys handle themselves. Hes a guy thats handled himself out here. Hes got ability and those guys who have the ability to handle themselves usually have the opportunity to be leaders.
Pierce is humble, make no mistake about that. He constantly spoke about the team, even when the conversation was about him and what he needed to do to get back to that 2009 form.
He said he studied Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson over the off-season, comparing himself more to Peterson than Johnson.
Chris Johnson too fast, he said amusingly, I aint that fast. So, I would have to say Adrian Peterson.
Peterson is known as a power back. Pierce had a habit of attempting to emulate Peterson the last two seasons, which is why he is now focused on becoming a more finesse running back. He says hes working more on his lateral cuts, which would be a complement to his speed.
Im trying to make sure Im not just running around, trying to run people over because at the end of the day, that will wear your body out.
Addazio was asked if he agreed.
Can I be honest with you? Addazio asked. I dont watch a lot of pro football. I dont have time, so I cant really make the comparison. I just know that Pierce is damn good. Hes got a lot of potential.
Addazio also said he noticed a wiser, more mature Pierce. His pass protection, ball security and overall awareness have improved.
The confidence is there, too.
The unselfishness follows.
His health? Again, Pierce says hes fine. Im not going to try and jinx myself, Pierce said, but as of right now Im good.
With all that said, a return to 2009 should be the result, right? Another 1,000-yard season? Another winning season and bowl game for the Owls?
Pierce looked up and smiled before replying, I cant predict anything. I can hope. I cant predict though.
E-mail Jabari Young at email@example.com.