Fifth-year running back makes history in first season at URI

Growing up, every child dreams of making the winning play in front of a big crowd and having their teammates swarm them in celebration. That dream became a reality for fifth-year running back Ja’Den McKenzie on Oct. 28.

After New Hampshire blocked Rhode Island’s field goal attempt for the win in the dying seconds of regulation, a must-win game for the Rams went to overtime. The Wildcats missed their field goal, and shortly after Rhode Island found themselves lined up on the 1-yard line.

The ball was snapped and handed to McKenzie, who leapt into a front flip over the line of scrimmage and into the endzone for his fourth touchdown of the game, winning the contest for the Rams. McKenzie’s four touchdowns made him the fifth player in URI history to ever record four rushing touchdowns in a game.

“What was going through my head was a lot of emotions,” McKenzie said. “Just going into that game because over the past year since I came to Rhode Island, that was the first thing [the team] really talked about, or really explained how that game got away from them.”

The Rams’ matchup with New Hampshire in 2022 was equally as close, but went the other way when New Hampshire’s last-second touchdown was ruled a catch. The catch was later discovered to be a drop, but the late appeals could not change the result as Rhode Island missed the playoffs because of the loss.

“That week going up to the game… it was like bad blood, or a little rivalry between them because of what happened last year,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie did not play that game in 2022. He transferred to the Ocean State this past offseason from West Chester University, a Division II program in Pennsylvania.

URI Head Coach Jim Fleming touched on the process of recruiting Ja’Den in the portal and the initial discovery of the talent by URI Running Back Coach Mike Flanagan.

“Coach Flannagan went out and found us a few running backs in the portal and brought Ja’Den to me,” Fleming said. “[Flannagan said] ‘This is a big back for us’, and I said ‘right on, we like big backs’.”

However, Fleming explained that coming into the season from a lower level school, McKenzie was not anticipated to be the lead back in the offense.

“Expectations initially were that he could just be a role player for us, but he’s significantly shown that the more carries he gets, the stronger he gets,” Fleming said. “I think his work ethic and his production put him in a position to have a monster game versus New Hampshire and I look forward to seeing what he can do the rest of the year.”

Although McKenzie leads the team with 490 yards and eight touchdowns, Rhode Island uses four running backs. Fourth-year Gabe Sloat, third-year Deon Silas and second-year Jaden Griffin have seen action throughout the year alongside their veteran teammate.

McKenzie touched upon the fact that he has to share his reps with other people competing for the big plays.

“It’s been really good, [with] everybody touching the ball, seeing their success, [I’ve been] encouraging them to keep going and being great as well,” McKenzie said enthusiastically. “We all push each other, day-in day-out, so that has been the best part.”

Fleming agreed with McKenzie, stating that the competition in the running back room is nothing but positive. He also dove into the intricacies of splitting carries on gameday.

“I think [having multiple backs] is a positive…,” said Fleming. “Coach Flannagan, the running back coach, it’s his deal to contend with because he’s got to keep everybody happy… It’s a good issue, all of these kids are talented, and they can give us different flavors of what we want to get done. As [Flannagan] has been doing, he plays the hot hand and that’s been Ja’Den lately.”

Even with McKenzie’s recent domination on the football field, he is still humble, and shows up to work every day.

“He’s a great team player and he’s a kid who comes in and goes about his business in a quiet demeanor,” Fleming said. “He’s always got a fist bump for you whenever you walk by him. He’s got a great personality and [he’s] a guy that loves football.”

Fleming has even come up with a term of endearment for McKenzie, one that is oddly fitting towards his play style.

“Obviously I’ve got my nickname for him, which is ‘The Beast,’ because he continues to run people over, over and over again and he inspires the entire team,” Fleming said.

McKenzie and the rest of the Rams now come out of their bye week to host North Carolina A&T on Saturday at 1 p.m.