TEMPE, Ariz. -- Everyone has had the test dream.
You go to class and sit down at your desk. Then all of a sudden, the biggest test of your life is put ahead of you, and you had no time to prepare.
Jacom Brimhall faced a similar scenario when Arizona State opened up spring practices earlier this month, but instead of facing wrong answers or a failing grade, he had 290-pound defensive linemen trying to tackle him.
Brimhall is walking on to the Sun Devil football team, attempting to find a role as a running back. To say that he was thrown into the fire early is a bit of an understatement, but such challenges come with the being a walk-on player.
“My first official start date was the first day of spring ball," Brimhall said. "That morning, we had to be there at 5 a.m., and we came in and got all of our pads ready. Then they said ‘OK, you’re going out to practice in two hours.’"
Did he even get a chance to look at the playbook before hitting the field?
“Nope, I just got tossed right into it," he said. "You have to learn quick. It was a big mental thing at first. After you get it down mentally, you have to start performing. It’s pretty rough at the beginning.”
To further add to the degree of difficulty, Brimhall is returning to football and shaking off the rust after an extended period away from the game.
A Mesa native, Brimhall starred at Mountain View High School. He rushed for 3,119 yards and 35 touchdowns over his last two seasons for the Toros and was named the East Valley Offensive Player of the Year after his junior season. He drew interest from schools like BYU, NAU, Colorado, Hawaii, as well as a number of lower-division programs.
However, his faith led him down another path. At least for a while.
“When I was coming out of high school, I was getting looked at by a couple of schools," he said. "When it came down to it, I was going to go to BYU, but then I served a two-year mission for my church."
Upon his return, it was an old Mountain View teammate that helped guide Brimhall—who says that he "bleeds maroon and gold"—towards the place he wanted to be all along.
"I came back here, and my friend (redshirt freshman linebacker) Brandon Mathews said ‘You’ve always wanted to go to ASU. Come talk to the coaches,'" Brimhall said. "When I came back and talked to the coaches, they said I should give it a shot. I’ve wanted to come to ASU since I was born, and that’s how it worked out.”
Thus began the whirlwind of administrative processes, in addition to getting back in football shape. As a walk-on, there are no promises or assurances, and Brimhall knew it was going to be a battle.
“When you get out of high school and you try to walk on, you have to get in shape quick," Brimhall said. "You come in and have a bunch of meetings. You have to go through a bunch of scholastic things to make sure you are ready academically. That’s the things that they stress here a lot. They time your 40 (yard dash). They run you through a bunch of drills to see where you are at. You can’t do anything with a ball due to regulations. They key is running, training, and being fit and ready to go because they are going to throw you in there quick. You have to be ready to go or you will be left behind.”
As if he didn't already have enough obstacles to battle through, here's the kicker: Brimhall stands just 5-foot-6. That's not exactly the prototypical size for running backs on college football's biggest stage, where every carry puts the body through a pounding.
But Brimhall fills that frame out very well. At 183 pounds, he has earned the nickname "Muscle Hamster" (as well as "Leprechaun") from some of his teammates due to his strong physique. In fact, in many situations, Brimhall feels his size presents an advantage as a change of pace for the defense.
"When we are out on the field, you hear guys saying ‘I can’t even see him,'" said Brimhall. "I love that aspect. As long as I follow my blocks, do what I am supposed to do, and I trust in my lineman, I can hide right behind them.”
Through the first four weeks of spring ball, Brimhall has been one of the under-the-radar stars of practice, consistently running with power on tough inside runs. Two weeks ago, he led the team with 75 yards rushing during an organized scrimmage, and this past Saturday he found the endzone once again during the scrimmage at Sun Devil Stadium.
“It’s been a short experience in these last four weeks, but I feel like I can learn this," Brimhall said. "With my skillset, as long as I get lots of those inside zone runs, I can hide and do it. It’s just a matter of me learning everything, because it’s been a lot thrown at me really quick. It’s definitely been a lot more up tempo, but it’s been successful. I’ve loved every minute of it, and that’s the best part.”
Playing a large role in Brimhall's early success has been ASU running backs coach Bo Graham. He helped to dispel some myths Brimhall had about the role of walk-ons, while being a valuable mentor for the freshman.
“Coach Bo Graham has been really supportive," Brimhall said. "Coming in, I had the idea that walk-ons were shoved to the side, basically the blocking dummies. If that’s what they needed, I would do it, but Bo Graham has been really helpful. Once I’m done with a series, he comes out and explains things to me in-depth. We go through film every single morning, and he’s very clear in everything. The support has been incredible and a lot more than I expected. I love it here.”
While Brimhall's early success represents a great story during spring ball, he also understands the reality of his situation.
ASU returns one of the most explosive playmakers in the conference in running back D.J. Foster, a player head coach Todd Graham has promised to be the team's "premier back". Senior Kyle Middlebrooks has been a fellow spring star, while fellow senior Deantre Lewis is also in the mix for touches. This summer, three highly-touted backs—Demario Richard, Kalen Ballage, and De'Chavon Hayes—will join the program as part of the 2014 class.
Instead of worrying about more hurdles in his way, Brimhall is just focusing on what he can control: learning the playbook and working hard.
“Right now in spring, it’s a learning process," Brimhall said. "I understand that D.J. Foster, D-Lew, and Kyle Middlebrooks are three studs and are going to do their thing out on the field. Then you have three big guys coming in. For me, it’s a grind. I know that when the fall starts and those kids come in and start lifting and all of that, the focus will be on them. My focus has always been on work. I can’t let that distract me. I’ll trust the coaches’ judgment as far as that goes. I just have to keep working.”
As a result, Brimhall's goals for the 2014 season are modest, simply aiming to be among the traveling roster. While that could be a tough goal to hit in the near term, Brimhall's determination gives him a chance.
Armed with that chance, Brimhall's dream remains possible.