‘Electric’ Durant could be a difference maker in UTC backfield

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Justus Durant (7) could become a difference maker at running back for UTC.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Justus Durant (7) could become a difference maker at running back for UTC.

Growing up, Justus Durant knew one thing: He wanted to play Division I football.

His prayers were for that opportunity. The road wasn't going to matter for the Palm Bay, Florida, native. He knew what he wanted.

If you talk to Durant (or if you just watch him run), everything is direct. There's no wasted movement, but at the same time, you can tell everything is calculated. If the 5-foot-8, 178-pounder sees a small gap, he's going to explode through that hole.

So it's not surprising he took his college journey the same way. He got to Division II Shorter University in nearby Rome, Georgia and was successful, but once he saw an opportunity to transfer to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, he ran with it.

"It's been a long journey, a long process," Durant said during the Mocs' spring practice, which ended on March 8. "It took a lot of dedication and faith in God. I took no days off and took everything day-by-day."

The coaching staff noted that one of the things about bringing in a player like Durant, who has dreamed of (and prayed for) this chance, is the appreciation that comes with it.

"We're very fortunate to have that type of situation here, where the guy who just came from a lower level of football, he has a greater appreciation for being at this level and being able to be out here and play with these guys," running back coach D.J. Knox said. "A lot of times it does make my job easier because I don't have to say things two or three times. Whatever I say, it's law; he's going to do by it and do it right.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Justus Durant (7) could become a difference maker at running back for UTC.

"He gives 100% effort, just because he appreciates the ability to be out here and I feel like that's very contagious with all of the other guys. We've got to be grateful for an opportunity, we can't waste any reps, and just to have him kind of join in and follow in stride, it was amazing."

Added head coach Rusty Wright: "You're going to get everything you can out of a guy like that. They're not going to take anything for granted because they've got an opportunity in front of them and you can see they want to prove themselves and they want to do well for themselves. I wish they all felt that way when it was all said and done."

Durant was productive in his two seasons at Shorter, rushing for 1,369 yards and 13 touchdowns in 21 games, including a 792-yard, 11-touchdown effort in 2023. And he produced against quality competition, netting 129 yards and a touchdown against Valdosta State, which advanced to last year's Division II quarterfinals, 96 yards and a score against Delta State — which won 10 games and advanced to the playoffs — and 202 yards and a pair of scores against North Greenville.

"You turn the film on and he's moving," Knox said. "He's getting in and out of it. He's efficient with his cuts and he's got the speed to go the distance. You always side on the side of speed. If I can take that speed I'll take that all day long and he has so many other things that come along with it, especially once we got them out here and saw how efficient he was. He's got good leverage and plays with good body control.

"I was like, 'Shoot, we've got to have that.'"

Durant described his running style as "electric," a style which earned him the nickname "Blaze" as a kid because he was the fastest kid in practice. It was a style that UTC coaches immediately knew could help in a running back room that lost Ailym Ford and Gino Appleberry, who combined for 1,238 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, and had 5,495 yards and 51 touchdowns in their respective careers at UTC. Now, the room is a little different, a bit more dynamic with Reggie Davis leading the way and Durant equally as capable of being a difference-maker.

"Being here is a blessing," Durant said. "This is something I've been praying for the last two years of college. I felt I was good enough to play Division I, so this is a great opportunity for me."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.

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