Jay Ajayi chose football over soccer during his junior year in high school. Soccer was his first love -- he had dreams of playing with the Nigerian national team -- but he settled on football because he didn't want to upend his life. Ajayi was born to Nigerian parents in London and had already moved twice before college -- to Maryland in fourth grade and Plano, Texas, for high school. Pursuing soccer would have meant another move abroad, probably to London again, and he was happy with the friends he had made stateside.
Ajayi didn't stay in Texas, however. He moved to Idaho to play for Boise State and validated the fateful decision he made in high school. In three seasons, Ajayi finished his college career as the fourth-leading rusher in Broncos history, and eighth in all-purpose yards. Ajayi's last season was his most prolific. With 347 carries and 50 receptions, Ajayi led the FBS in touches and was second to Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon in yards from scrimmage.
Now Ajayi is on the verge of being one of the first running backs selected in the 2015 NFL Draft. SB Nation has him ranked as the fourth-best prospect at his position, but one could make the argument he's even better than that. Ajayi will tell you himself -- he's the most complete back in the draft, with a combination of size, receiving skills and durability that makes him immensely valuable in an NFL that favors functionality and versatility at running back more than ever.
I talked with Ajayi about his soccer days, his love of pickle juice, how he's competing for attention in a deep class of running backs and the plans for his famous "Jay Train" celebration. The gist is this: Ajayi is ready for the NFL, and you should be excited to watch.
What was your routine like leading up to the NFL Combine?
I was training out there for more than five weeks, five-plus weeks. I got there on Jan. 5, and the Combine we left ... I believe it was Feb. 17. So I was out there in San Diego just going hard, going at it. We would wake up at around 7:30 and workouts starting at 9 for me, but I would be in there before that getting some extra stuff done. We would start at 9, have a workout, we'd have another workout at 1:30. We really wouldn't get done until around 5 -- 4:30 to 5. So basically it was from 7:30 to 4:30 or 5 that I was dealing with some sort of prep for the Combine.
So pretty long days, but you know it was all worth it because the Combine is the biggest interview process in a young NFL draftee's career. That was just something that I wanted to make sure I was fully prepared for going into the Combine.
What were you most anticipating or most looking forward to going into the Combine? Or even, what were you most nervous about going into Indianapolis?
I was kind of nervous about the whole process. I had teammates kind of tell me their experiences there. I was just nervous about the process, but at the same time I was excited. I want to make sure that even though it is a very serious process, I wanted to have fun during the whole thing. I really enjoyed meeting with the different teams, and kind of letting them know who I was and what kind of person I was.
And then I just enjoyed, when it came down to it, going out and competing on that field and just trying to showcase my talents and my abilities when it came down to field work.
Did you get a lot more attention from NFL teams contacting you after a successful Combine?
No, not really. It was kind of like, I actually at the Combine had to meet with 21 teams. And so I met with a lot of teams, and from that point on there was a lot of communication that went on after those meetings, just from feedback and also from just trying to keep in touch as the process continues to go on leading up to my pro day and leading up to my draft.
Did teams give you a scouting report? What were some of the things that they liked about you as a prospect, and what were some of the things they said you have to work on?
As a prospect, they liked me. They just told me that my game translated very well to the NFL, that I have the potential to be a three-down back in the NFL, and they also told me that they think I have the potential to be a complete back as well, and I've shown it on film.
But they said I need to work on my pass protection. That is something that you can always improve on, and that's something I take pride in just wanting to be a great pass blocker at the running back position. So they said that in the NFL you can't afford to make any mistakes on third down, so they just said that that's something you need to make sure you improve on. And ball security as well.
Can you talk about, one, who you talked to preparing for the Combine, and what advice did they give you?
I talked with Charles Leno Jr. I believe he's on the Bears right now -- that was my roommate and kind of my big brother in college. And I also talked with Jamar Taylor, a corner. I played with him as well. He played for Miami. They were just telling me what to expect, how to prepare for the uncomfortable situations that they try to put us in to just see how we react. And just to try to have fun and enjoy the process, but because there's no other process where you can have all 32 teams where they're looking at you and watching you and evaluating. So they said just make sure you take advantage of the Combine itself.
What were some of the factors that went into forgoing your senior year at Boise State? How did you decide it was time?
Well, during my season my productivity was high, and I started to receive phone calls from agents saying that there was a possibility that I might need representation after the season. At that point in time I really pushed those guys to the side because I was very focused on my team goals. We had a new head coach, new coaching staff and we had just been coming of an 8-5 season. That was mediocre for Boise State standards, and so I was very focused as one of the leaders of the team in making sure Boise State was brought back to the level of play that I thought we should be playing at.
So my main focus was that we won our conference championship outright, because we had never done that in the Mountain West before, and that was my main goal. So during the whole season I pushed everything to the side and focused on that. My production level stayed high. And at the end of that season, we were able to bring the first outright Mountain West championship back to Boise State. I wanted to leave a legacy at Boise State, and I was able to leave Boise State as one of the best running backs to come through there.
Looking at the NFL and how they value running backs at this point in time, and just seeing how my draft stock was, and seeing what I was able to accomplish in college, I didn't think until sitting down for a long conversation with my coaches -- after we had some time between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the bowl game -- we decided it really was the best decision for me, and sitting down with my family as well. And we decided that this was the best time to declare. So I declared.
Our last goal was to win our bowl game, and we got to play in one of the best bowls in college football in the Fiesta Bowl, and we were able to go out as Fiesta Bowl champions. That was my last collegiate game of my career. For that to end that way, I just felt that was a storybook ending, and it made it that much sweeter and made me that much happier that I made the right decision.
Were you comfortable switching from in-season mode to having to make a business decision? Did you give any thought to the state of the running back position in the NFL?
I sat down and looked at my statistics this past season, and my whole career statistics in college. I sat down with my coach and we talked about would it be smart, would it be wise to come back another year -- because let's be real, I touched the ball the most in college football this past season, and I was able to do that game in and game out and be a more durable back in college.
And so, looking back at it, I didn't think it would be in my best interests, for my dream to play at the next level, to come back and possibly do another season of that at the collegiate level and come into the NFL with a lot of tread on my tires.
Like I said, being able to accomplish what I did in college and being able to bring the first Mountain West Conference championship to Boise, it wasn't really that big of a decision to make when it came down to it. It was actually a quite easy decision.
It was a little bit tough announcing to my teammates that that would be what I was doing, because I played three years and been in Boise four years building relationships with all of those guys. Knowing that that would be the last time I would be playing with them, that was tough. But they understood that and I understood that. It's all about chasing your dreams, and I'm on to even better things now and greater opportunities.
Do you think coming from a soccer background has informed the way you run or the way you play football?
Absolutely. I definitely think how good my feet are for being a bigger guy, and how good of agility I have, I think that comes from my soccer background. Just how much footwork is used in the game of soccer -- how much running, how much cutting is used in the game of soccer -- I think that that definitely helped shape me growing up when I began to play football and I would play soccer at the same time. Transitioning over to football, I would use some of those moves as a running back. And it just definitely helped me grow as a football player and build those quick feet and that skill set that I'm able to use in the game.
Do you still follow soccer? Do you follow the Premier League or MLS or ... ?
Yeah, absolutely. My favorite team is Arsenal in the Premier League. I still follow soccer very much. Love when the World Cup is on. I'm always watching that.
So have you picked up a soccer ball recently?
I just juggle. I haven't played any pickup games since I stopped playing. But I just juggle and fool around with the soccer ball when I have downtime, because that has always been a hobby of mine. Like someone who has played basketball, and is not a football player, and he goes and shoots hoops and some stuff like that. That's what I do, I'll take a ball and kick it around in my backyard.
Something people have said, and you've said, is that you run 'angry.' Is that something that came natural to you, or did you have to strive to achieve that mindset?
I would say it was a mindset, but it was also something that became more of a focal point in just my running style. You know, growing up and playing, I never wanted to be brought down by one person, I just wanted to make big plays for my teammates. Growing up, I also got doubted a lot as well. I believe just that wanting to make those plays for my team and getting doubted a lot helped build a chip on my shoulder that just kept growing and growing, and kept allowing me to be more motivated.
When I play on that field and every time I touch that field, I run so angry just because I always wanted to prove a point, always wanted to strive to be the best player on that field at any time I'm on the field. I think that it grew, and has grown, and has just become a part of my style. Just running angry and not wanting to be brought down by no one guy.
Do you think you have a different personality on the field than off it?
Oh definitely. When I'm on the field I get into the fierce competitor Jay mode where I'm just on Level 30 [laughs] just going. And I'm the guy doing whatever it takes to win. I hate losing. When I'm off the field, I'm a nice guy. I'm nice, and I'm personable. I make everyone laugh, and I'm a good time. But when I'm on that field, I don't know, it's like a different person almost. That emotion, and that competitiveness, and that chip on my shoulder -- it kind of just takes over who I am when I'm playing the game of football.
I always tell my friends, it's like y'all don't know how I am on the field. Like, I'm happy and everything now, but when I'm on the field it's like, I'm ready to go. I'm just ready to do whatever it takes to win.
You're entering what I would consider, and many would consider, probably one of the deepest classes of running backs that we've seen in several years. What do you think sets you apart among a lot of really talented guys?
I think that I am the most complete back in the draft. I think that I've proven that through my play and my statistics. And I think that kind of helps me have an edge over the other guys in this very highly touted running back draft class. I think that looking at it, I was able to put a lot of yards up on the ground, but I was also able to put a lot of yards up in the air as well. And that was just a big deal for me because I wanted to add that element into my game throughout the offseason, and I was able to showcase that this past season.
I think that I'm very versatile, and I also think that I'm very durable, with the workload that I was able to carry and be able to have all those touches and still not have any injuries this past season and still be able to just get it every game -- just hard, being very productive.
Did you ever feel you were competing with those guys this past season, watching other guys put up big numbers and yourself put up big numbers? Were you chasing them?
Oh absolutely. Melvin [Gordon] and Todd [Gurley] are guys that bring their 'A' game every weekend. I would tell people that I would not play this game other than to want to be the best, and what I'm doing at running back you have guys that are pushing themselves every week to want to be their best and to want to be leading the nation in touchdowns or carries or rushing yards. That was always something that I motivated myself with, just competing against the other top backs in the nation and just wanting to be the best, and wanting to be the most productive.
So that was something that definitely helped motivate me every day, is just seeing guys like Melvin go out and break LT's record and say 'OK Jay, you gotta go out and play and try to do something like that too.' And seeing guys like Todd Gurley just rushing for so many yards -- it's just something that motivated me and be able to be that kind of player as well.
Have you been able to hook up with those guys at all during this process?
Oh yeah, me and Melvin, we trained together in San Diego, so me and him are very close now. We text all the time and talk. Our relationship in San Diego, just competing against each other and training with each other, pushing each other to be the best that we can be. So he's somebody that I'm always talking with. We're always just texting and seeing how each other's doing. And now that we're not training together, we're just always just checking in on each other, making sure that we're both doing real good.
What are some of the comparisons, either a current player or former player -- is there anyone that you model your running style after?
I pattern my game after Matt Forte, DeMarco [Murray] and I would say Marshawn Lynch. Those three guys -- Matt Forte's all-around capabilities and being able to do everything for his team, and DeMarco is just durability and the load he was having to shoulder this past season and how he was able to carry that for his team. I also really feel that I kind of run like him, a really upright style -- he's a taller running back like myself. And I think that Marshawn, just the fight he has, the tenacity he runs at, and trying to not be tackled by one guy and fighting for every yard, just running angry.
Being a Cowboys fan growing up, would that mean something more to you to go there? They may be looking for a running back in the draft.
At this point I would be just blessed to play for any team, but I think that it would be kind of special to play for the Cowboys being that my whole family is in the Dallas area. And playing at Boise State, it was always hard for them to come watch me play. So I think if I lucked out and the opportunity was there that I ended up in Dallas, I think that it would kind of be special to my family just because they would be able to come to those games and see me play in person. I think that would kind of be unique, you know, just growing up being a fan.
That 2011 season was rocky for you. What helped you get through that? You had an ACL injury and you had an arrest. Was that a difficult time?
Yeah, it was a difficult time, but at the same time I had my family and my friends and my teammates to rally around. I've made mistakes in the past, but I feel like I shouldn't be judged by my past. Everyone makes mistakes and I'm moving forward from that season. I've kind of put that 2011 season away. I'm moving forward from that.
At the time, your parents called it a 'spiritual attack' to set you on the right path. Do you agree with that?
Yeah, I would. I'm a Christian, and I feel like God turns to humble people when he feels that they're getting too high and mighty. So that definitely I believe happened, and something that I have to move forward from.
Do you still drink pickle juice at the end of games?
Yeah, I did throughout the season. It definitely helps. I take a shot before the game or a shot at halftime. And whenever I feel like my legs are getting kind of tight, I would take a shot of pickle juice. So I will definitely stay with it, I believe. It's been working for me. I don't think I'm going to stop moving forward.
Do you have plans to take the 'Jay Train' celebration to the NFL?
Definitely, I think that's kind of like the person I am on the field. 'Jay Train' is kind of my alter ego on the field, just running like a train, trying to run through everything and run fast, just trying to get to that station. Which, the station for me is the end zone. It's definitely a celebration that I'll continue to do. I think it's a part of me and who I am as a player.