- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Boise State running back D.J. Harper felt good about his chances of getting a sixth season granted. But when dealing with the NCAA, you never know anything definitively until a ruling is made.
So during January, when Harper was in limbo, he kept peppering the training staff. "Have I been cleared yet?" he would ask, over and over.
It was the end of the month and Harper was sitting at home when a text message came through on his phone. The answer he was waiting on had arrived. Harper was indeed granted his sixth season of eligibility -- a saving grace not only for himself, but for the Boise State football team.
With Doug Martin gone, Harper is the lone experienced running back returning to the team. The lack of experienced depth at the position is one of the team's concerns this spring. Harper is being limited in the spring, because of his injury history, but there is little doubt who the starter is headed into the season.
"It definitely feels great," Harper said in a recent phone interview. "I was blessed with the opportunity to get my sixth year back, now that I have gone through the system for six years, my knowledge has increased, and obviously maturity-wise, I've grown up. So I'm excited for it."
Harper has had to earn the opportunity the way nobody wants to earn an opportunity -- because major knee injuries in consecutive seasons set him back. Harper emerged as a true freshman in 2007 -- the same season Kellen Moore spent redshirting. In that first year, Harper had the fourth-best rushing season by a true freshman, with 376 yards and five touchdowns.
He also became the first Boise State true freshman since 1988 to rush for more than 100 yards in a game when he had 153 yards and a touchdown against Fresno State. Harper continued in a backup role the following season and seemingly had his shot to really star in 2009 with great performances in the first three games of the season.
But he tore the ACL in his left knee in the middle of an impressive game against Fresno State in Week 3 and was forced to sit out the rest of the season. The following year, healthy and ready carry the load with Martin, Harper tore the same ACL -- again in Week 3 against Oregon State.
"When I tore it again, of course I was upset, but it didn't faze me too much," Harper said. "I've been through it once, so I knew I would bounce back from it again. I knew what to expect, I knew how to approach the rehab. It wasn't a big deal to me."
Those two lost seasons gave Harper a mental toughness he may not have had before the injuries.
"Just being able to deal with adversity was big. In games when things don't go the way you planned, you just shake it off, come back and make a play," he said. "With my knee, unfortunately it's an event that happened, but I wanted to make the most of the adversity. I got myself in the weight room to get stronger and faster."
Harper returned last season and was healthy for most of the year, but Martin was the unquestioned featured back. When Martin got banged up in the latter part of the season, Harper stepped in with back-to-back 100-yard games against UNLV and TCU. But Harper hurt his ankle against TCU in the fourth quarter and was forced to sit out the following week.
Though it was not his knee last season, Harper has yet to play an entire season without an injury. Staying healthy is of utmost importance this season, especially with all the senior leadership the Broncos lost. Harper has to take on an increased role there, especially for an offense that is without Moore and Martin -- the two workhorses from a season ago.
"I definitely want to take on that leadership role for that offense, and for the team, to be a guy people can turn to, be that guy coaches can turn to," Harper said. "When a play needs to be made, they can trust me. I will make that play."
Boise State will need all the plays it can get from him this season.