By BEN JOHNSON
Junior college is a tricky avenue to travel down for some. In football, it's often feast or famine.
"It makes you a man," said Northeastern State linebacker Donnie Fuston. "Coming out of high school, you're kind of immature, even though you may have thought you were mature for high school. Then, you go to the college world and you're not as mature as you thought.
"You have to man up real quick."
That's preciously what Fuston did. He explored the junior college route coming out of Enid High School, joining the Golden Norsemen at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in Miami, Okla.
However, unlike most junior college players that spend two years trying to build up their recruiting stock, Fuston bolted the JUCO ranks after one year.
"You're on their time, but if you stay focused, you can get through it," Fuston said of playing junior college football. "...I had another year at NEO, but I was ready to leave, I guess."
He quickly found a home in Tahlequah, playing linebacker for Northeastern State in 2012. And while Fuston was a blip on the RiverHawks' radar coming out of high school, his time playing junior college football caught the eye of NSU's coaching staff.
"There are a lot of good players between here and Enid," NSU head coach Kenny Evans said. "Donnie was someone we liked, but he matured at NEO, which made it easier to want him. So we started recruiting him."
At NEO, Fuston not only transitioned from high school to college football, but he also shifted from cornerback to linebacker. During his freshman campaign with the Norsemen, he racked up 78 tackles (45 solo tackles), one interception, three pass breakups and one forced fumble.
"It was hard," Fuston said of switching positions. "I feel like corner is easier because you don't have to learn a lot. I mean, you still have to learn stuff, but at linebacker you have to know everything."
Luckily for Fuston, the NSU coaches opted to play him in the front seven. He played in all 10 games for the RiverHawks, logging 10 tackles and a half tackle for loss as Langton Jones' backup at hawk linebacker.
More importantly for Fuston was the knowledge that he gained playing with fellow linebackers, Jones and Jack Gray.
"Me, as a football player, I'm not very patient," Fuston said. "But Langston and Jack taught me that you have to be patient at linebacker, especially when you can wait on stuff to open up for you. They also taught me the plays and how to understand gaps."
Both Jones and Gray are back for their senior seasons in 2013. But instead of playing behind the duo, Fuston is hoping to secure the rover position next to Gray, and across the field from Jones.
"I want that spot," Fuston said. "Me, I don't know where I'm going to be playing because Coach Evans had me at both rover and hawk during spring practice."
Fuston — a 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior — was listed as Colton Nevel's backup in NSU's projected two-deep roster for 2013. However, there's plenty of time to settle the position dispute, Evans said.
"There's definitely a chance (Fuston) takes over (Cayle) Shambaugh's place," Evans said, referring to Shambaugh leaving the football team to concentrate on his baseball career at NSU.
"Nevel had moved into Shambaugh's place, but Donnie could move over and battle for a starting spot."
Even if Fuston doesn't snag a starting job, there's little doubt he'll log ample amounts of playing time in 2013.
"He understands both outside linebacking positions," Evans said of Fuston. "That gives him a chance to be playing a lot this year."
The best part about playing rover for Fuston? He executes each play without putting too much thought into what's going on.
"I played there during the spring, and it just felt natural," he said. "I wasn't even thinking about my assignments. Coach Evans said I looked like a natural, and all I was doing was playing."