Talk to Zurlon Tipton for five minutes and you get mixed signals.
A quiet, shy, down-to-Earth guy from Detroit, he sometimes struggles to find the right thing to say. But he just loves to play football. Start asking him more about football and that confidence, dancing toward cockiness, comes out.
But you also get a sense of a young man growing into a role as a leader. He has to, being one of a handful of experienced seniors on the offense. His coach sees it, too.
“He said at (Mid-American Conference) media day that he was going to be more vocal, and I almost fainted,” said head coach Dan Enos. “How can this guy be more vocal? He has been, believe it or not.”
But not in the tone you might think. Instead of spewing trash talk on the field or horsing around with teammates, he understands the situation.
Forget the ongoing quarterback saga. Forget the criticism of Enos’ job as head coach – Tipton, in fact, has a huge amount of respect for his coach and the playbook.
For him, it’s about production and getting others involved. Those numbers he posted last year, 1,492 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns, have landed him on a pair of watch lists with some of the best backs in the country.
Should he post a repeat performance of last season, or better, an award could be waiting for him.
There’s always the NFL, too.
“I feel like I opened a lot of people’s eyes to who Zurlon Tipton is,” Tipton said in July at MAC media day. “But I’m not just stopping there. I feel like there’s a lot more to accomplish. Making those lists is a great honor, but at the end of the day, it’s still a list. I’ve got to go out and prove why I’m on this list.”
A fifth-year senior for the Chippewas, Tipton essentially missed a year and half of his college career due to injuries.
He sat out 11 games in 2009, his freshman season, and missed the final five of the 2011 season with a broken foot. In between, during the 2010 season – Enos’ first in Mount Pleasant – Tipton was a blip on the radar with 203 yards on 56 carries in 10 games.
Since arriving on campus during the Butch Jones era, Tipton has bulked up, gotten stronger, and developed into the first legitimate power-back of Enos’ tenure.
Enos, a product of the Big Ten environment, has always preached size and depth since coming to CMU.
“Last year was really the first year he’s really played running back since his senior year of high school,” Enos said. “So you can see the development in how much he’s improved. I think a lot of it has to do with confidence, but he understands the schemes and has been playing at a very high level.”
Add in uncertainty at quarterback, in which the three candidates have little to no Division 1 game experience, and Tipton’s production becomes key to a successful offense.
When asked, he said he doesn’t feel the pressure to carry the offense, citing Enos’ preference for a balanced offense.
But deep down, he wants more carries.
“Even when (Ryan) Radcliff was here, I was after coach Enos about needing to run it more – like 80/20,” Tipton said with a laugh. “But he wasn’t having it. I’m not expecting anything but what he expects of me.”
Enos considers Tipton an “every-down back,” meaning he can play in most situations, including goal-line plays and short-yard situations. He’ll also get help from sophomore Saylor Lavallii and junior Anthony Garland, who provided short-yardage help when needed last season.
Additionally, he’ll benefit from an experienced offensive line, sans first overall NFL draft pick Eric Fisher. Senior Jake Olsen, back for his sixth year, anchors a line that includes three others – Andy Phillips, Nick Beamish and Kevin Henry – with starts under their belt.
And when referencing the line, Tipton has learned to use “we.”
He credits Fisher and the rest of the line with his successful season last year – he was the first CMU running back to rush for 1,000 yards since Ontario Sneed in 2005 – and realizes it takes more than just his jukes, jives and north-south running.
“Those guys up front, that’s me basically,” he said. “If they’re not there, then there’s no Zurlon Tipton.”
Contact Aaron McMann: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMcMann.