Jeff Demps stays in the present
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Jeff Demps doesn't seem to have the personality you might expect. Sprinters, 100-meter specialists in particular, are typically more peacock-like, aren't they? Part of the contest among the fastest men in the world is the games they play with each other's minds, right?
And what about running backs, the quickest ones? The now-you-see-him, now-you-don't kind who often seem to evaporate just before they're tackled? Don't they usually have a bit of an attitude, too?
If Demps, who runs the football and races on the track for Florida, has any kind of strutting alter ego, it's very well-hidden. The Gators' leading rusher last year is soft-spoken, not spotlight-seeking.
"He is the best kid I ever coached -- not just talent-wise, but character-wise," said Walter Banks, Demps' mentor at South Lake High in Florida. "He's the one that if there are a thousand people out there waiting for his autograph, he wants to stay until he's signed for everybody. He doesn't want to let anyone down."
Demps has maintained that mindset despite the load he's carried as a collegiate standout in two sports. He's been part of national championship squads on both the gridiron and the track, and the quick assessment of Demps is that it must be grand to have such options. Does he want a professional football career, or will he pursue running track for a living? Who wouldn't relish being in such a position?
Except as talented as he is, neither is a sure thing. It's not as if it could ever be "bad" to be multi-talented, but in some ways the choices Demps faces could make his life more confusing than if he could just laser-focus on one dream.
So how does he handle it? He tries to always stay in the present. Not in that self-help book sense, but in a training-mindset way.
"It's just natural to me," Demps said recently at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships at Drake University. "I always try to keep distractions out of my mind so I can focus on what's right in front of me. It's second nature to me by now."
But Demps did not have the kind of finish to the outdoor season that he wanted. After winning his second consecutive 60-meter title at the NCAA indoor championships in March, Demps was very good at the start of the outdoor campaign. He ran a wind-aided time of 9.96 seconds in the 100 meters April 16 in Gainesville, Fla.
He was poised to repeat what he'd done outdoors in 2010, when he'd won the 100 and was part of Florida's victorious 4x100 relay team at the NCAA championships. But at the 2011 SEC championships in mid-May, he was disqualified for false starting in the 100, as was his football/track teammate Chris Rainey.
At the NCAA preliminaries in Bloomington, Ind., at the end of the May, Demps ran the 100 in 10.16 -- his best legal-wind time of 2011 -- in the first round of the preliminaries. His subsequent 10.19 moved him into the semifinal round, to be contested at the NCAA championships in Des Moines in June.
But he did not qualify for the final, cramping up as he ran a 10.40 and was third in his heat. Then he was involved in a handoff mishap in the 4x100 relay final, and Florida didn't finish the race.
The Gators, who'd won back-to-back NCAA indoor track championships, fell short of winning the program's first outdoor title with 53 points -- behind Texas A&M's 55 and Florida State's 54.
"My heart goes out to Jeff," Gators track coach Mike Holloway said after the NCAA meet concluded. "We lost the championship by two points, and I know he's blaming himself for that. That's the kind of kid he is. He's a humble, hard-working guy, and I'm just really proud of him.
"If this is Jeff's last collegiate track meet, I'd hate for his career to end on this note. He's a wonderful kid who's done so much for our program. I hope it's not the last time we see him out here."
But will it be? We'll have to wait and see. However, it isn't going to be Demps' final big competitive meet, as he will run in the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships this week in Eugene, Ore.
"Not having things go how you want them to go -- I have to learn from it, get stronger," Demps said of his NCAA meet disappointment. "Now, I just want to come out and work that much harder and get better.
"I felt that it would be a big year outdoors for me. I had some fast times early in the year, and I thought at NCAAs I'd be able to do something crazy. But, it's adversity -- everybody goes through it at some point. It's just how do you overcome it, what do you do to come back."
Holloway isn't sure how to describe the rough patch Demps hit at the end of the collegiate track season except to call it bad luck.
"I can't pinpoint it; it's just one of those things," Holloway said. "He lost his rhythm, and we don't know exactly why. But that's my job as a coach to figure it out and get him ready for the USA meet. He's fine physically."
Demps says that the necessity of being in competitive shape the entire school year -- for football, indoor track and outdoor track -- actually has helped him stay healthy. He hasn't worn down.
"Football prepares me for track, and track prepares me for football. They just carry over," he said. "Very rarely do I have any free time, but I'm so used to it that it doesn't even bother me. If I'm not doing anything, then I'm looking for something to do."
His focus will turn to football fairly soon after the USA meet ends. Demps was the top rusher last season for the Gators, carrying 92 times for a net of 551 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught 18 passes for 116 yards and ran back eight kicks for an average of 32.5 yards.
For his Florida career, he's gained 1,901 yards on 269 carries and 17 touchdowns on the ground. And he's caught 41 passes for 309 yards. Listed at 5-foot-8 and 181 pounds, Demps enters his senior season of football with things left to prove to NFL scouts.
"He's undersized, so it's tougher for him to be an every-down back in the NFL. He's probably more a third-down, scatback type," ESPN.com draft analyst Kevin Weidl said. "And with his track speed, a return specialist. With his size, teams want to see elusiveness. Lateral quickness is huge for a smaller back like that. If you can't run through a tackle, you have to make people miss you -- not only in the open field, but in confined areas.
"We know he's fast, and if he gets in the open field, he's dangerous. But how good is he at getting in and out of traffic at the line of scrimmage?"
Weidl stressed that serious assessment of Demps' draft potential would need to come from more significant tape study after he's navigated his senior season. If Demps is able to get through that in good health, then he'll be faced with the choice that up to now he hasn't had to make: bypassing track to try to earn a job in football. It would seem likely he'll do that, even though he's definitely not ready to say it.
"Deep down inside, I think he really wants to play football," Banks said. "But he just wants to know where football is going to take him."
That's the rub, of course: Hopes can crash hard and fast in the world of pro football. Although it's looking ahead -- which Demps, as mentioned, really doesn't like to do -- if he chose football and it didn't work out, what about then pursuing track?
"Anytime you've got a guy who can run 9.9, there's a chance," Holloway said of Demps' potential track future after college. "He's got to step up and do it [with a legal wind] against the big boys."
Demps will have more information to work with, so to speak, after he sees how he performs in Oregon. But whatever eventually happens, in the purest sense, his heart will always belong to both sports.
And even after a disappointing meet in Des Moines, Demps' affection for his "other" sport was palpable.
"I love to run. I'm a football player, but at the same time, I do love track," Demps said. "It's the same to me; as long as you're out there competing and giving your all, it doesn't matter if there's one person or 100,000 watching me. If I'm doing the best for myself and my team, I'm going to be happy."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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