By BEN JOHNSON
Steven Hopper expected to be racking up tackles — not avoiding them — in 2013.
Northeastern State’s 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore started the year at strong safety behind Victor Johnson. He played against both Pittsburg State and Missouri Southern but didn’t record a tackle in either contest.
“Safety was the position he had been recruited at out of high school,” Northeastern State head coach Kenny Evans said of Hopper, who originally committed to the University of Houston before signing with NSU in 2010. “Houston was going to play him (at safety). We’re just glad he’s here.”
Then, as NSU’s injuries started to mount up after only two weeks into the regular season, Hopper was asked to return a position that he was quite familiar with in high school: running back.
Hopper nickel and dimed yardage against Emporia State and Washburn for a grand total of 23 yards on 11 carries, but then he posted an 86-yard performance against Northwest Missouri State in Week 5. He started to gain more playing time as the season trudged along, seeing plenty of action against both Eastern New Mexico and Central Missouri.
Then came a day he won’t soon forget over the weekend.
Hopper carried the ball 25 times for 228 yards and three touchdowns, resulting in the first NSU player to rush for 200-plus yards since Carlton Booe did it in 1999.
Not bad for a guy who thought he’d still be trying to shut down opposing offenses.
“I expected the whole entire year to play safety,” said Hopper, a former standout at Broken Arrow High School. “Never once did I think I was going to get the opportunity to come back to running back. We had a lot of running backs early on...so I didn’t expect to get back to running back this year. I’m very thankful and very blessed to have the opportunity again.”
Hopper was instrumental in the RiverHawks snapping an eight-game losing streak with a 31-3 victory over Southwest Baptist at Doc Wadley Stadium. He was well on his way to career-high yardage and touchdown totals after his 49-yard scoring run in the second quarter.
“Steven’s got great vision, which is the No. 1 quality that a running back has to have,” Evans said of Hopper, who only rushed for more than 200 yards only once in high school — a 307-yard performance in 2009 against Sand Springs (which had current teammates, Terrance Dixon and Johnny Deaton, on the roster).
“(Hopper) was able to find some things when there wasn’t much there.”
Of course, none of Hopper’s production at NSU would be possible without Evans’ trip to Tulsa last winter.
During the offseason, Evans ventured into a Planet Fitness in the Tulsa area and tracked down Hopper — who had all but retired from collegiate athletics. But Evans did a little persuading and was able to get Hopper to rejoin the RiverHawks after he had played in nine games as a freshman in 2009.
“We had a big talk back in December of 2012...and we had talked about me getting back on the field,” Hopper said. “...After recruiting was over and things like that, (Evans) gave me a phone call and said that they would be able to give me a spot on the team.
“At that point, I was pretty much committed, because if God can open one door, he can open it again. So I had closed it once before and it had been opened again, so I was very thankful and I knew that was what I really wanted to do.”