Check out one of the most exciting squads of the spring FCS season and No. 26 commands your attention.
With a powerhouse frame of 5-foot-9 and around 215 pounds of muscle, North Dakota running back Otis Weah changes direction and turns on the speed with an effectiveness that belies his size.
"One-cut guy," is the one phrase Weah used to describe his running style.
Weah's breathtaking rushing has resulted in five touchdowns through the first three games of North Dakota's attention-grabbing start. College football may have no more surprising team in 2021 than the Fighting Hawks. Unranked ahead of the pandemic-shortened spring season, North Dakota rolled off three wins over Top 25 opponents in each of its first three games.
The gauntlet of Southern Illinois, South Dakota State, and South Dakota made for quite an introduction to the Missouri Valley Football Conference, which the Fighting Hawks joined this year. The Valley has cultivated a reputation as the standard-bearer in FCS, thanks in part to North Dakota State's run of national championships.
Crediting the Valley's reputation solely to the Bison sells the conference far too short, however. South Dakota State and Northern Iowa are perennial top-10 programs, Youngstown State became a dynasty under Jim Tressel in the 1990s and reached the national championship game in the 2016 season, and Illinois State took NDSU to the final snap of the 2014 season's title game.
"Really good football, passionate fan bases," is how North Dakota head coach Bubba Schweigert, previously the offensive coordinator at Southern Illinois from 2008-13, described the Valley.
"It's a little more old school," Weah said of the conference. "Teams love running the ball in the Valley, and it's physical."
In that way, the Fighting Hawks and the Valley are a perfect match. North Dakota isn't just proving it belongs in its first MVFC season, but further elevating the league's lofty reputation.
And as the Fighting Hawks defy expectations week-after-week in ascending to No. 3 of both the FCS STATS Top 25 and Athlon Sports FCS Power Poll, their standout back Weah is writing his own compelling story of beating expectations.
Coming to North Dakota out of Moorhead, Minnesota, Weah already defied odds far greater than anything football could present. He was born in a refugee camp in Ghana at a time when the West African nation's infant mortality rate of almost 65 deaths for every 1,000 births per United Nations statistics.
Weah and his mother moved to the United States when he was two years old and discovered an outlet in football, a journey well-chronicled in this 2017 story. Passion for the game continues to buoy him in college.
"He loves football and he's a lot of fun to have on the practice field because he brings a lot of energy," Schweigert said.
Weah's outstanding high school play landed him his spot at North Dakota where, as a Div. I athlete, he was already among the smallest fraction of prep football players to play at that level.
An even more exclusive fraction of college freshmen see much playing time in their first year, and in this rare instance, Weah was less the exception.
"We didn't get a whole of opportunity to see him a couple years ago," Schweigert said. "He got him in and he did score a touchdown at Northern Colorado."
Weah's performance against North Dakota's former Big Sky Conference counterparts showed the potential once he saw more playing time as a redshirt freshman in 2019. But then, there was no 2019 season for the running back, who was deemed academically ineligible.
Without football, Weah could have been a statistic among the 38 percent (National Center for Education Statistics) of college students who do not make it to graduation. But Weah didn't give up — nor did North Dakota give up on him.
"We made a decision when he was unable to compete, we wanted him in the program," Schweigert said. "This was a very serious decision. We take a lot of pride in what we do, not just on the football field, but how we go about our daily. We really needed him to accept responsibility, and we're always working on that with all our guys."
"Everybody stood by me, helped out throughout the way," Weah said. "[It] showed me I've got to do my part to pay them back for all the help they gave me."
Weah is doing that, handling business off the field in pursuit of his degree — he said he hopes to work in media after football is finished — and on the field. He's running like someone making up for lost time, producing the most scores-per-game of any running back in the FCS.
And he's got plenty of time to make up with his return held off.
COVID-19 delaying the season pushed Weah's return back several months, but the lead-up to the spring season gave him some chances to get hyped, following the game at other levels. That includes NFL Sundays, when Weah watched another Minnesota product, Tyler Johnson, win a Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I looked up to Ty since I was in seventh grade," Weah said. "We grew up in the same neighborhood, north Minneapolis. It's cool to see a kid who grew up in north Minneapolis get a ring."
Johnson may not be the only product of the neighborhood to win some hardware in 2021 if Weah and the Fighting Hawks continue on their current course.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo by Russell Hons, courtesy of fightinghawks.com)