Isaiah Totten does most things with a smile.
The North Carolina Central running back doesn’t do a lot of talking, but plenty of grinning. When it was brought to his attention that he was voted first-team preseason All-MEAC, he just smiled. As he maneuvered from table to table during the 2019 MEAC Media Day, he greeted each person he talked to with a smile, then kept smiling through most of the interview.
Apparently, that extends to the playing field. His teammate, linebacker Branden Bailey, told a story from practice, when he got a good hit on Totten, who got up, smiled, and simply said, “You got me.”
Totten doesn’t carry himself like a star running back, but he plays like one. The rest of the conference has taken notice, judging from the preseason All-MEAC nod.
Totten won’t talk about that much, rather choosing to elaborate on the work he put in to get to this position. Last year, by his own admission, was just OK. He led the team in rushing with 768 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. But he will be the first to tell you he is nowhere close to his full potential.
Entering his redshirt junior season, Totten has played in 22 games for the Eagles, taking playing time away from two veterans in front of him in 2017 and never looking back.
THE DUKE GAME
The former Apex High star went home for the offseason after the Eagles were a perfect 8-0 in the MEAC in 2016, advancing to the Celebration Bowl. Totten was redshirted that year and heading into the 2017 campaign, NCCU returned Ramone Simpson, Dorrel McClain and Torri Cotton, three running backs who all started at least one game in 2016.
McClain and Simpson both were All-MEAC selections in previous years, but Totten was determined he would not sit and watch another year.
“I went back home and I was talking to my dad,” Totten said. “I told him I had to play, I couldn’t do the whole year sitting on the bench again. I had to get out there.”
He went to work in the winter, saying he had never worked that hard off the field in his life. When the Eagles returned for camp, he showed up with the mindset he had to take that spot, even if the guys in front of him were his friends.
But McClain and Simpson weren’t going to hand over those spots. They were too talented to just step aside. Totten needed an edge. His redshirt season he watched how McClain and Simpson carried themselves in practice and in the film room, taking mental notes. He learned from them while adding a little bit of his own personal style to the game.
For a naturally quiet guy like Totten, sitting back and watching came easily. But still, heading into the season opener at Duke, Totten thought he would be a special teams guy, with a few carries here and there. In the second half of a blowout versus the Blue Devils, former running backs coach Jordan Reid turned to Totten and told him he was going in.
Reid asked Totten if he was scared. Scared? Of course not, Totten responded, but what happened next even caught Totten by surprise.
“When we ran the ball, outside zone, when I saw the hole I was shocked,” Totten said. “So I hit it and thought don’t get caught. It really was a moment in my career I will never forget.”
Totten hit the hole and 81 yards later found the endzone, still the longest run of his career. He took that opportunity and hasn’t looked back since.
By the end of that season he was a regular starter. By the next year, he suddenly was the veteran in the meeting room, just a redshirt sophomore.
“It happened faster than I expected,” Totten said. “I wouldn’t change any of it.”
A QUIET LEADER
It’s ironic that Totten is a mass communications major, considering he rarely communicates.
“You can be in the same room as Isaiah Totten and not even know he’s in there,” Eagles’ first-year head coach Trei Oliver said. “Most of the time those guys (running backs) are a little more vocal, but he’s an outstanding young man.”
Totten puts in the work, leading by example, trying to come out of his shell to be more vocal. Oliver would like to see Totten talk more, and Totten is working on it. But the formula has worked so far. Quiet or not, Totten is one of the best running backs in the league, letting his play speak for itself.
“It’s weird because you have a guy that’s so talented and so humble,” Bailey said. “He teaches you in the game of football that you don’t have to always be the one that’s going to talk. You can do what you do and get back to the play. I appreciate him for that, teaching me that.”
When Bailey, a rising junior, first came to Durham from Deerfield Beach, Fla., he had heard of Totten. But when he first saw the 5-9 running back, who doesn’t say much, he thought that couldn’t be the All-MEAC back he had heard about.
“He doesn’t carry himself like that,” Bailey said. “Real humble dude. Very humble.”
Totten said he’s always been that way. There have been a couple of instances where he admits his buttons were pushed a little on the field and his mean streak came out. But for the most part it’s all about the work. The only thing that matters are results.
Even being in the spotlight won’t change that for Totten. He realizes a target will be on his back this year. When he arrived in Norfolk for the MEAC Media Day, a player from Florida A&M told Totten they hated he had to miss that game (shoulder injury) last year because they wanted to compete against him. That type of respect is all that matters to Totten.
“It’s a challenge that I really like,” Totten said. “Life without a challenge there’s no point of living.”