Elijah Barnwell had a good thing going playing football for Rutgers University.
“It was lovely,” said Barnwell, who is from Piscataway, New Jersey, about five minutes away from the campus. “I was able to get a home-cooked meal and see my family.”
But when his playing time diminished, he decided to transfer to the University of Maine, where he has been one of the team’s top running backs. Rutgers is a Football Bowl Subdivision team while UMaine plays in the Football Championship Subdivision, which has fewer resources and scholarships.
“I wasn’t content with my role at Rutgers. I took a chance on myself and Maine gave me an opportunity. They believed in me,” said Barnwell, who was visited by former UMaine head coach Nick Charlton and offensive coordinator Andrew Dresner.
He also knew the top two running backs from 2019, Joe Fitzpatrick and Emmanuel Reed, weren’t coming back.
He’s since emerged as the team’s top running back, currently leading the team with 231 yards on 48 carries for an impressive average of 4.8 yards per carry. He has now rushed for at least 53 yards in five of his last seven games dating back to last season — 66 or more in four of them and at least 84 in three, including 90 in 11 carries in last Saturday’s 31-24 win over Hampton University.
He rushed for a career-high 111 yards on 23 carries in a season-ending 33-20 win at New Hampshire.
This comes after carrying the ball 38 times for 125 yards in the abbreviated four-game spring schedule a year ago. He had a solid fall season (117 carries, 514 yards) that saw him finish second to Freddie Brock (132-for-720) in rushing yards.
“He has great timing and feel in the running game,” said UMaine head coach Jordan Stevens. “He allows blocks to set up and then he hits [the seam]. He always gets positive yardage.”
Stevens also said Barnwell is a hard-nosed runner.
“He will lower his shoulder. He’s not afraid to run somebody over. That’s what I love about him,” said graduate student center Mike Gerace. “He makes our job easier. He will run through arm tackles.”
Barnwell isn’t a particularly big back. He is 5-foot-11 and weighs 211 pounds.
“He runs a lot bigger than his size,” said UMaine junior safety Robby Riobe. “He has good balance.”
Barnwell worked hard in the offseason to increase his speed to have more “big-play” capability.
“I feel I am a block or two away from springing a big one,” said Barnwell, who rushed 10 times for 81 yards in 2019 at Rutgers. “That’s my mindset on every play. I want to be a huge piece of our offense.”
In addition to adding quickness, he also said he has gained 5 pounds that has aided his ability to break tackles and gain extra yards.
“He has gotten stronger and faster,” said senior quarterback Joe Fagnano. He added that Barnwell is the type of player who will lower his shoulder into an opponent to get an extra yard or two, rather than run the ball out of bounds.
“I have all the confidence in the world in him to pick up a first down if we are in a third down or fourth down and short,” Fagnano added.
In addition to his rushing totals, he has also caught eight passes for 38 yards this season.
The Black Bears, 1-4 overall and 1-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association, will entertain first-year CAA team Monmouth (4-2, 2-1) for Saturday’s 1 p.m. Homecoming game.
Barnwell said he hasn’t been satisfied with his career so far but feels that he is improving with every game.
“I want to bring more out there,” said Barnwell, who is working toward a master’s degree in business. “Hopefully, we will continue to rely on the running game so the running backs can be more impactful.”