At the end of a standout career in the lowest division of high school football in the state of Ohio, A.J. (Austin James) Ouellette remained in limbo. The Covington High School Buccaneer was a legitimate prospect—with decent size, and eye-popping numbers to match—but apparently did not do enough to warrant a scholarship offer by the end of his senior year.
Ouellette has since earned that scholarship as a result of his efforts in practice after originally walking on with the Ohio Bobcats, and has shown himself capable of stepping into the spotlight, which he did in his first collegiate game on Saturday against Kent State.
The lack of interest from Division-I programs continued through the end of January, when sports columnist David Fong of the Piqua Daily Call wrote a story documenting Ouellette's frustrations. In the article itself, Ouellette was quoted as saying "I've not really been given any reasons (for not receiving a scholarship offer). I had Akron tell me that they hadn't heard about me soon enough. I really don't know why I haven't had any offers - nobody has really told me anything. I guess maybe it's a combination of my size and the level of competition, but nobody has really told me."
The 5-foot-10, nearly 200-pound running back has excellent measurables. Having run a 4.4 forty-yard dash while maxing out at over 400 pounds on the bench press during his senior season (per Fong), he showed strength and athleticism off the charts. It is as if the level of competition that Ouellette played against while at Covington High School is the sole reason behind there being no interest in him.
But Ouellette did manage to catch the attention of Ohio University. Although the team had no more scholarships to offer, head coach Frank Solich wanted him on the team.
"We recruited him hard as a walk-on because we felt he was a really good player and one that was probably overlooked," Solich said the week following the Kent State game. "You know, in terms of what he's all about, in toughness and running ability, and picking things up very quickly. The whole thing showed well for him."
Offensive coordinator Tim Albin was especially impressed with Ouellette, and pushed hard to have the running back in green and white.
"I told Coach Solich, I told everybody on the staff, I said 'the kid is going to play for us as a true freshman.' They said ‘Really?' I said, ‘I'm telling ya, this kid is going to be a really good player,'" Albin said. "And he's been everything that we've thought off the tape, and he's an even better person off the field."
Ouellette made the team and eventually received a scholarship, just a few months after joining the program as a walk-on.
"I sent out a thank you text to the coaches. Coach Albin, told him to tell all the coaches thank you," Ouellette said. The freshman also called his mother to pass along the news, and recounted the fact that his mother broke down crying upon hearing it. But the true freshman figured to see little playing time in 2014. The Bobcats' starting running back, Daz'mond Patterson, figured to be one of the most dynamic players on Ohio's offense. Solich would need Patterson on the field as much as possible. Whenever Patterson needed a breather, senior Tim Edmond would be in the backfield.
In addition to those two, Albin had two other freshman backs: Papi White and redshirt Dorian Brown. White had rushed for 3,133 yards in his senior year of high school, averaging 241 yards per game. Brown had rushed for 3,293 yards in his senior year and was named one of the best players in western Pennsylvania, a hotbed for football talent, by several local papers. White, a speedster, ran for 3,133 yards and 41 touchdowns as a senior in Seminole, Oklahoma. For the freshmen, especially the ones such as Ouellette who were behind Brown and White on the depth chart, their opportunities would come mostly in blowouts.
But the Bobcats' 2014 season opener against Kent State was anything but. Leading 14-7 at halftime, the Bobcats seemed destined to pull away. But Patterson fumbled twice, and Edmond and Brown each fumbled. With 3:34 remaining and the game tied at 14, Solich turned to Ouellette.
On the final drive of the game, Ouellette had his chance to shine. The player who hadn't received a single offer six months earlier carried the ball six times for 28 yards, marching the offense down the field. With the clock winding down, Ouellette busted off a 4-yard run to the Kent State 27-yard line, putting the the team within field goal range with just three seconds left on the clock. Ohio kicker Josiah Yazdani split the uprights as time expired, giving the Bobcats a 17-14 win.
Ouellette spoke humbly of his performance in the game. "It kind of took a weight off my shoulders to show people that we (CCC players) can do it. It felt amazing out there to contribute, and I'm just pumped for the next game now."
Ouellette carried the ball one time for four yards in Ohio's 20-3 loss at Kentucky the following week. He has still got a long ways to go before he'll be putting up record-breaking numbers in Ohio's backfield, but the former small school star is on the right path to make everyone remember his name.