Jake Gandara refused to be a spectator during his freshman year at Central Oklahoma.
The Bronchos entered the 2013 season with four running backs. One was Josh Birmingham — a Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association First Teamer in 2012. Another was senior Christian Bobo. The other two included redshirt freshman Donovan Roberts and Gandara.
Gandara was clearly at the bottom of the totem pole. So it was either redshirt or work his way into the every-game rotation of backs.
He chose the latter.
“Going in I was told I will be redshirted,” the 5-foot-10, 185-pound tailback said. “But the competitive side of me didn’t want to, so I worked really hard during the summer to be in good shape and I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on the playbook.”
One thing led to another and Gandara was inserted into the rotation when the Bronchos opened the season in Joplin, Mo., against Missouri Southern. He logged six carries for 19 yards and two catches for 43 yards.
“Some injuries occurred before the season,” Gandara said, “and I was ready.”
And he’s been ready for every game since.
Through UCO’s 10 games this season, Gandara has become the Bronchos’ second-leading rusher with 334 yards and two touchdowns on 60 carries.
“He came in and was able to function at a high level,” UCO head coach Nick Bobeck said. “He worked himself into a position to where we thought he was a guy we needed to get onto the football field.”
On Saturday, the playing surface Bobeck and Co. will be trying Gandara on is Gable Field at Northeastern State’s Doc Wadley Stadium. The RiverHawks (1-9, 1-8 MIAA) and Bronchos (2-7, 2-7) will kick off a 1 p.m.
For Gandara, it’ll be his first time playing on Gable Field since his junior season at Fort Gibson High School. In a 35-34 loss to Tahlequah, Gandara ran the ball 14 times for 76 yards.
“I’m excited to play at NSU because it is so close to my home, my family and my friends,” Gandara said.
Of course, he can only play within 30 miles of his hometown four times during his collegiate career. But that would mean UCO would play at Northeastern State the next four seasons — and that’s not going to happen.
Instead, Gandara will have to exhaust his eligibility in Edmond, knowing that NSU didn’t show much interest during his senior campaign as he was on his way to setting a single-season rushing record at Fort Gibson.
“I was not recruited by NSU out of high school,” Gandara said, “and I’m a Broncho now.”
But don’t think that there isn’t extra motivation for Gandara when he faces the RiverHawks.
“Yes, that is something that has always been in the back of my mind,” he said.
Gandara’s chances of churning out big numbers are heightened because of his mentor, Birmingham — who is 199 yards short of setting the all-time rushing record at UCO.
“I have learned so much working behind Josh Birmingham,” said Gandara, whose best performance (17 rushes, 94 yards, one touchdown) this season was against Central Missouri.
“He has been great to work with and has helped me identify my weaknesses. We have had talks about little things like running ball, pass blocking, but also he is very big on his diet and keeping his body healthy during the season. And he has noticed mistakes in my running form that I am going to work on.”
Even more promising for Gandara is the high praise that Bobeck heaped on him.
“His skill set is similar to what Josh’s is,” Bobeck said. “He’s got great flexibility in his hips.
“He has taken a liking to Birmingham and he’s taken it from there”