By Steve Irvine
Basketball was not only Kennard Backman's first love when it came to sports but it was also a possible ticket to a college education.
A couple of things changed his route toward being a college athlete. The first thing was that he stopped growing when he reached 6-foot-3, which is not the ideal height for a college power forward. The other thing, which was probably more important, was that he developed another option.
"I didn't know I was going to play college football until probably about September of my senior year in high school," said the Austell, Ga. native, who helped lead Whitefield Academy to one state basketball championship and another runner-up finish and was also a two-way standout on the football field. "My heart took me toward football and I just had to go for it. I felt like I had more of a future toward football."
As it turned out, Backman, who did have a few basketball offers from smaller schools, made a solid decision. The senior tight end started in 28 of the 36 UAB games the past three seasons and contributed 57 catches for 580 yards with six touchdowns. Now Backman, who was selected to the 2014 Mackey Award Watch List, appears he's poised to put a spectacular finish to a solid career and perhaps secure a spot at the next level.
"He's literally got a chance to keep playing," said UAB head coach Bill Clark.
Developing into a player who drew NFL interest was one of Backman's goals when he arrived in Birmingham. Doing that, however, took a lot of growth. He weighed around 215 pounds when he took an official visit to UAB during his final year of high school. Former UAB head coach Neil Callaway, whose staff was recruiting Backman, suggested that he work on adding some weight. That summer, when Backman arrived for his first fall camp, he tipped the scales at around 225 pounds.
"The first thing you saw is just what a physical specimen he is," Clark said. That was before the work he's done over the past six months with UAB strength and conditioning coach Zac Woodfin and his staff. Backman enters training camp at 240 pounds and, despite being lighter than last year, is "stronger than I've been at any point in my life."
It hasn't gone without notice.
"First off, he's a physical specimen," said quarterback Cody Clements, repeating his head coach's scouting report. "At the same time, you see him catch a short little route and he's bursting up the sideline. You go `Who's that guy?' He's got that burst, got that speed as well as the size."
It's that type of versatility that makes Backman such a vital cog for what Clark and offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent plan for the Blazers to do offensively.
"It is something that is a game changer," said quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe. "He's a very special person. We can put him out there and let him run receiver routes matched up on linebackers and he's a mismatch problem. Or we can just motion him in the backfield and we can go ahead and run power plays and things like that. He's an all-around freak and it definitely makes our job a whole lot easier."
Backman is relishing his final college season before he worries about his future. He plans on filling a big role but knows he's only one part of an offense filled with playmakers. He knows things will open up for him because of the pressure applied to a defense by speedsters like Jamarcus Nelson, Maudrecus Humphrey and Jamari Staples and the attention required to stopping a running game led by Jordan Howard.
"We have great offensive skill corps," Backman said. "We have great camaraderie, that's what is going to set us apart. You're talking on the field, off the field. I believe we all complement each other. I believe everybody believes a little bit something different to the table. When we're all clicking I believe we can be as good as we want to be."
That may be true but Briscoe said a good place to start when looking for an option is the big tight end.
"Even if he is covered 1-on-1, I'm still going to take him winning over somebody else," Briscoe said. "I know he's going to go up and make a play. He's too big and strong and fast to lose 1-on-1 battles."