CHICAGO – Jesse Callier had just scored his first touchdown in nearly two years, weaving in and out of the defense, huffing, lunging and falling into the end zone. It was an exceptional 39-yard run, emphatic proof he is back from major knee surgery.
As he went to the sideline, satisfied, he became overwhelmed with emotion. Nearly the entire team — coaches, players, managers, trainers — congratulated him and offered a grinning “Welcome back!” salutations. Their admiration touched him.
“It was awesome,” Callier said. “All the hard work, the rehab, working out — it definitely paid off in that moment. I couldn’t believe how much the team responded to me, thanking me for being back.”
Callier is a free spirit and an eccentric dude — “I don’t watch that much football … I watch ‘SportsCenter,’ but I can’t physically sit down and watch a whole game,” he would say after Saturday’s 34-24 victory over Illinois at Soldier Field — but he is also an easygoing teammate.
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He just wants to be a part of something special. He doesn’t have to be a standout.
Before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against San Diego State last season, he was the Huskies’ starting running back. Now, he is third string. But he doesn’t lament what an injury did to his playing time. He just plays his role while heeding some advice his father gave him long ago: “Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”
The Huskies were fortunate Callier was ready Saturday. After backup running back Dwayne Washington fumbled on his only two carries in the first half, coach Steve Sarkisian called on No. 24.
Of course, he was electric.
Of course, he produced, amassing 96 total yards (66 rushing, 30 receiving) and a touchdown in the second half.
And, of course, the Huskies celebrated his breakthrough because, without him, perhaps a difficult road game would have gotten really dicey.
The No. 19 Huskies (2-0) weren’t without flaws. Much like in their season opener against Boise State, they gained a lot of yards in the first half — 278 this time — but led only 10-3 at halftime, mostly because of penalties (12 overall, nine in the first half) and those two fumbles.
But they took over the game in the second half, starting with a seven-play, 75-yard drive in which they did not throw a pass. The Huskies built a 31-10 lead before allowing Illinois back in the game, but the Illini could get no closer than 31-24.
While the Huskies have plenty to fix, they also looked dominant most of the way, outgaining Illinois 615-327. Their turbo offense ran 85 plays.
Keith Price completed 28 of 35 passes for 342 yards, his second straight 300-yard performance.
Bishop Sankey was a superstar, rushing for 208 yards on 35 carries to go with three receptions for 63 yards. He ran for a touchdown and had a 31-yard touchdown reception on a swing pass from Price.
If the Huskies are going to continue with this offense, they will always require an array of players producing. Jaydon Mickens caught eight passes and scored a touchdown, and Kevin Smith caught five for 104 yards. But Callier gave the offense its biggest boost in the second half with his all-around play.
“It was great for Jesse Callier to step up,” Sarkisian said. “It was good to have No. 24 back, running around.”
In the fourth quarter, Callier made another critical play. Facing a third-down-and-eight situation, with the Huskies clinging to a 31-24 lead, Price hit Callier on a screen pass that went for 27 yards. It helped set up Travis Coons’ 32-yard field goal that accounted for the final score.
“Sark dialed it up,” Price said. “Perfect play. Perfect call.”
Callier had no idea he would be so open.
“I didn’t know that the defenders weren’t going to be around,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t know that.”
Callier doesn’t worry about the standing he has lost in the past year. He was once the heir apparent to Chris Polk. He was once challenged to be the next great Husky running back. Now, Sankey is the man, and Callier has to fit in where he can.
The injury didn’t make him bitter. He says he is having more fun playing the game, even in a smaller role.
Whether he is a starter, backup, third string or relegated to a special-teams role, he’s just happy to be healthy and competing. He is fine with his role. And on days when Sarkisian asks him for more, he won’t be caught unprepared.
His father taught him too well for that.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer