Seastrunk’s defining season leading Baylor

About this time last year, running back Lache Seastrunk had 181 career rushing yards in two-plus seasons as a college football player. He’d been a member of two teams and scored just one touchdown.

Few players in college football have seen their profile rise more quickly than Seastrunk in the last year, thanks to eye-popping runs and eyebrow-raising quotes that have him all alone as the Big 12’s leading rusher with 869 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 96 carries for a 7-0 Baylor team ranked sixth in the BCS standings.

He’s averaged more than nine yards a carry and proven he was far more than recruiting hype and legitimized his December prediction that he’d win the Heisman or come close, playing his way onto more than a few short lists for college football’s top individual award.

“We haven’t utilized him to the full extent yet,” Baylor coach Art Briles said.

It’s been a defining year for Seastrunk on the field. The chance for him and the Bears to establish a defining moment for the program lies ahead on Thursday night when No. 10 Oklahoma comes to Floyd Casey Stadium.

The final month of the season will determine how Seastrunk and his teammates are remembered, but the moments that defined Seastrunk as a man are behind him.

“I learned more about myself in the two and a half years I sat out than I did this season,” Seastrunk said.

Seastrunk grew up in Temple, Texas, and spent extended periods of time living with his grandparents, John and Annie Harris. His father never played a major role in his life, and his mother, Evelyn Seastrunk, periodically spent time in prison throughout his childhood.

Reached by phone, Evelyn declined to be interviewed for this story.

“It’s always been me my brother,” said Scy (pronounced “sky”) Garland, Lache’s older sister, who served five years in the Army and now lives in San Antonio with her husband, Jamail Garland and son, Jamail Jr. “I don’t have a problem with my childhood. People make mistakes and you go from there. Our upbringing was good. I got to do the things that I wanted to do. We weren’t limited from doing anything.”

John’s military background meant a home with strict rules.

“My granddad was the hardness. My grandma was the soft and kindness. They balanced each other out,” Lache said. “My grandparents really molded me into the person I am today.”

He was a rambunctious, happy kid, a ball of endless energy.

John was the man who helped begin his transition into a man. He’s who taught him to look people in the eye during conversations. Lache still sees a weak handshake as a sign of disrespect.

Around age six, Lache started his little league football career. The first gift he ever asked for was a basketball, but it was clear he was most gifted on the football field.

“He was fast back then, just as a little kid, but we really knew Lache was special in the 7th grade,” said Bryce Munson, who coached Lache in high school at Temple. His son, Cody, was one of Lache’s teammates in little league football, too.

Around ninth grade, Seastrunk considered quitting football and focusing on basketball. Scy and Harris sat him down and weighed his options.

“Football came so natural. He didn’t have to force it upon himself,” Scy said.

The idea of killing his football career was short-lived.

By the end of his high school career, Seastrunk was a five-star recruit with a free ticket to almost any school in America.

“Ever since I remember, he’s possessed a tremendous amount of ability and he’s worked hard,” Munson said.

Munson told Seastrunk to tell him when he was ready to make his announcement, so the school could plan a press conference and event to celebrate.

“Lache was never a distraction,” Munson said. “He was tremendous about the whole thing.”

That didn’t mean his recruitment wasn’t without mistakes. On a recruiting visit to Auburn in May 2009, Seastrunk looked into a camera and said, “What’s up, Nick Saban? Wait ‘til we get here.”

He later admitted he got caught up in the atmosphere and called Saban personally to apologize.

On Jan. 27, 2010, Temple High School hosted a commitment celebration for Seastrunk.

Few family members, if any, were sure where Seastrunk would commit, but it seemed certain that he would be the first member of the family to move away from Texas. USC and Auburn were the leaders for Seastrunk’s services.

“I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t really want him to go to Oregon,” John Harris said. “He kept it a secret. Everybody in the family was surprised.”

Seastrunk has repeatedly denied claims that recruiting service operator Will Lyles steered him to Oregon. The NCAA’s 27-month investigation found the Ducks paid Lyles $25,000 after Seastrunk signed his letter of intent for non-existent recruiting reports from Lyles’ scouting service. That resulted in two lost scholarships and an 18-month show cause order for coach Chip Kelly, among other minor penalties. Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles five months before the sanctions dropped in June 2013. There’s plenty of debate over Lyles role in Seastrunk’s recruitment, but most agree that the running back wasn’t to blame for NCAA’s investigative cloud that loomed over Oregon for more than two years.

“I don’t think Lache did anything wrong,” Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell told Fox Sports Southwest. “There were a lot of opinions going around, but I don’t think anything was done maliciously. Everybody had good intentions. There were just some rules and regulations that weren’t understood completely. The NCAA rulebook is hard to read. It’s a big book. … We have to study it and take tests on it every year. I’m sure someone who didn’t do that that wouldn’t know all the rules and all the particulars.”

Seastrunk made the 2,000-mile move from Temple to Eugene, Ore. Around that time, his sister Scy was deployed to Iraq, almost 7,000 miles away.

Annie Harris would call him at least once a day. Seastrunk was almost always surrounded by friends in high school, Munson said. Harris was one of a handful of family members that made up Seastrunk’s support system. He never duplicated that in Oregon. The family missed watching Seastrunk play, but not as much as Seastrunk missed being on the field.

Scy and Lache would talk periodically, but Scy being in Iraq prevented those conversations from taking place daily.

“We’d never been split from each other,” Scy said.   

Lache was frustrated. LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner were ahead of him on the depth chart, and the path to playing time looked long. Periodically falling asleep in position meetings and trying to answer questions from Campbell that jolted him awake didn’t help him earn opportunities to get on the field, either.

“I just felt like that wasn’t the place I couldn’t be successful,” Seastrunk said. “They deemed that I wasn’t good enough.”

Today, Seastrunk looks back on that year and sees motivation. Campbell disagrees with Seastrunk’s perception of what coaches thought of him.

“I think he may have been a little impatient,” Campbell said. “Had he stayed around here, he would have been playing. … He progressed slowly. He just hadn’t matured to the level where he was ready to play yet. I think he would have done pretty much the same if he’d been here.”

Campbell says the NCAA issues surrounding his recruitment had no effect on his playing time, but previously admitted that they would have naturally come up if Seastrunk’s success had come at Oregon.

Seastrunk always possessed the talent to turn a four-yard gain into a 40-yard touchdown. Oregon wasn’t Temple and it was a long way from little league football. Early on as a Duck, that ambition worked against him. Turning runs outside often made probable five-yard gains into losses.
As preseason camp in 2011 progressed, Seastrunk fell behind true freshmen Tra Carson and DeAnthony Thomas on the depth chart, too.

Off the field, even though their communication slowed, Scy noticed a difference. He’d always been known as a happy guy. The only other time she’d seen him without a permanent smile was when he was recovering from an injury.

“It’s not in his character to be a Debbie Downer,” Scy said.

Once he got to Oregon, that smile didn’t show up as much, and when it did, it didn’t seem to be quite as wide.

He missed the breakfasts that were always waiting for him when he woke up in Temple. He missed the hugs and kisses he got from family. Even now, Lache greets Scy with a kiss on the cheek everytime he sees her, despite her protests.

Lache’s maternal grandmother, Mary Seastrunk, was also sick.  

“If I wasn’t playing ball, I figured I might as well spend the time she had left with her,” Seastrunk said.

She has since recovered and is doing well.

Seastrunk rarely talked about the idea of transferring before announcing his plans to league Oregon. He only referenced the idea in passing once with Scy, who told him to pray about it and make sure it was what he wanted.

On Aug. 20, 2011, Seastrunk announced his plans to transfer. His mother helped him move back from Eugene, and he went straight to Baylor before continuing home to Temple, Annie Harris said.

“It was out of the blue when he came home,” Scy Seastrunk said.

He’d left Oregon on Saturday. On Tuesday, Baylor announced Seastrunk was a Bear.

“Everybody liked Lache when he was here,” Campbell said. “He’s a great kid. Eveyrbody around here is happy for his success.”

Baylor’s defense felt Seastrunk’s impact in early practices.

“I immediately knew he was going to be a playmaker. The stuff he did was unreal. He made the D pretty mad,” said quarterback Bryce Petty, who was Baylor’s third-string quarterback in 2011. “They could not put hands on him. (Defensive coordinator Phil) Bennett really stresses him in their defensive practices to wrap up. They couldn’t do it.”

He still had that hunger for the big play and the sometimes unreliable belief that he could turn any run into a big one.

“They forced him to run the ball inside a little bit,” Campbell said Baylor’s coaches told him. “It was just something that he never really had to do.”

Spending a year in Eugene and seeing up close that he wasn’t the nation’s best back left Seastrunk more inclined to listen to coaches’ advice when it ran counter to his own instincts. Taking those four or five yards might mean more chances for a 50-yarder later in the drive.

The 2010 season was Seastrunk’s first without a carry since joining that little league team more than a decade earlier, when he was six.

“God can always take anything away from you. He’s the one who gives you opportunities, and when I figured that out, I knew I never wanted God to take that away from me again,” Seastrunk said. “I was humbled in everything I do.”

During his NCAA-mandated redshirt season, Seastrunk didn’t have to worry about cracking a depth chart. He learned. He began taking the job of pass protection in the backfield more seriously. He focused on school and only needed to make a 40-minute drive south to enjoy some of his family’s famous crab legs.

“I’m more understanding of the game and understanding I don’t know everything and there’s so much more to learn,” Seastrunk said.

He finally made his collegiate debut in Baylor’s season opener in 2012. His second carry went for 34 yards. It was only mop-up duty in a 59-24 win over SMU, but Seastrunk finally got a taste of college football. He wanted more.

He still had to overtake Jarred Salubi and Glasco Martin on the depth chart. That didn’t happen until a home game against Kansas two months later, on Nov. 3. He topped 100 yards on just 17 carries and didn’t have a run longer than 17 yards. He also caught five passes for 91 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown to help snap Baylor’s four-game losing streak and a week later, he scored three touchdowns on the road against Oklahoma. A week later, he officially introduced himself to America with a 185-yard night in Baylor’s 52-24 upset of No. 1 Kansas State, highlighted by an 80-yard touchdown that sealed the win for the Bears.

By the end of his six-game stint as Baylor’s starting running back, Seastrunk had amassed 831 yards and six touchdowns. He’d surpassed 100 yards in five of six games and averaged 8.14 yards a carry.

In just over a month, he’d gone from borderline recruiting bust to bona fide star.

So far, 2013 hasn’t been much different. Seastrunk’s played sparingly in the second half this year as the Bears have reached 7-0, beating teams by an average of 48 points.

“Once I think he gets to where he’s getting the ball 20-plus times a game–which he hasn’t up to this point, and that’s all by design–then I think we’ll see the improvements and the positive steps he’s made,” Briles said.

He shrugged off Seastrunk’s Heisman prediction in December, saying he didn’t want guys on his team who didn’t think they could win the Heisman.

“I never try to be cocky or boast on myself,” Seastrunk said, “but I try to put my goals in front of me and let everybody know this is what I do and this is what I’m working for.”

Petty explains that Seastrunk is a “what you see is what you get” type of guy

 “He’s very in the moment, which is something not a lot of people carry. And when they carry it, they don’t carry it like he does” Petty said. I think sometimes that gets misconstrued as being cocky or conceited, but it’s really not.”

Seastrunk’s smile is back. He’s having fun again. He’s dancing during breaks in practice, refusing to believe them when they try to explain that he’s not actually a good dancer. He’s cracking one-liners when Petty’s trying to make a play call, even in games.

“You’d think that’s not something you want, but he just keeps it real light on the field,” Petty said.

And even though his love of bouncing runs to the outside in search of the big gain has been tamed a bit since high school, he still hasn’t lost his unpredictable nature.

“He’s just free-spirited. You never really know what he’s going to do. You have a play drawn up and say, ‘OK, this is where the hole’s going to be, trust it,'” Petty said. “Sometimes he just does what he’s going to do, and a lot of the time, it works out. He’s been compared to Barry Sanders a lot in the sense that in five carries, he may go for two yards, -4 yards, three yards, eight yards and then 80 yards. You’ve got to take the bad with the good because the good’s going to come a lot more than the bad.”

Especially now. He’s faster than he was when he showed up at Oregon. He’s bigger. From Eugene, Campbell still keeps an eye on the Seastrunk’s highlight reels. He’s rarely surprised, but sees him breaking tackles more often now, something that was a rarity during his time at Oregon. He was 188 pounds back then. He’s up to 210 now, and his track-star speed hasn’t lost a step. If anything, he’s faster, logging a 4.34 40-time, according to Baylor.

“We all knew when Lache found his school that fit him, there would be no telling how far he could go. There was no doubt in our mind: Some day they’d be writing and reading about Lache Seastrunk,” Munson said, “and here we are.”