He already has the moves

RB Griffin to play for UMass after NU

John Griffin had a decision to make after Northeastern ended its football program. John Griffin had a decision to make after Northeastern ended its football program. (Matthew Cavanaugh/Globe Photo)
By Robert Mays
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2010

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The number he knows. But the list comes more slowly.

Germany. St. Louis. Nevada. New Mexico. Northern and Southern California. Texas. Maryland. Massachusetts.

John Griffin has moved 13 times in his 21 years, mostly the result of his stepfather’s job. So when the former Northeastern running back decided to transfer to the University of Massachusetts after the Huskies folded their football program after last season, two hours of highway didn’t seem like much.

“It seemed natural,’’ Griffin said. “Almost secondary.’’

UMass coach Kevin Morris is hoping Griffin will make the transition to the Minutemen offense as easily as he has settled into life in Amherst. Griffin’s arrival means UMass will replace one all-conference running back — the graduated Tony Nelson — with another. Morris thinks the duo of Griffin and Jonathan Hernandez will give the Minutemen one of the best running games in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Griffin’s move was set in motion soon after Northeastern’s 33-27 win over Rhode Island to end the 2009 season. At a team meeting, athletic director Peter Roby informed the team that the school was canceling the football program.

But for elite players such as Griffin, who amassed 1,009 rushing yards en route to an all-conference selection, there were sure to be opportunities at other schools.

UMass and Morris were the first ones to reach out before an open house for schools interested in Northeastern’s new free agents.

“Certainly, John was an immediate focus,’’ Morris said. “We had Tony Nelson graduating, who was an all-conference running back for us here at UMass. John Griffin is a returning all-conference running back. They had the same numbers. All signs looked to a potential matchup.’’

Griffin spent a few weeks weighing his options. He took an official visit to Miami, Ohio, and thought about moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision level for a chance at greater exposure.

But when it came time to decide, Griffin said it was winning that was paramount.

“When I was at Northeastern, our rival game was UMass, and they were always good from what I could remember,’’ Griffin said.

“I had the individual accolades, the first-team all-conference, and New England, and preseason All-American and everything,’’ Griffin said. “That’s good and all, but it’s not as good if you’re not winning.

“At Northeastern, we won two or three games, and it’s just not a really good feeling.’’

A few familiar faces dotted the locker room when Griffin arrived. One of his family’s more recent moves was to Westminster, where Griffin played his senior year of high school football at Oakmont Regional. He had played with a few of his new UMass teammates, including Hernandez and tight end Emil Igwenagu, on a high school all-star team.

“I actually knew some people and had some friends before I even joined the team,’’ Griffin said.

Morris said one of the greatest challenges that Griffin and fellow NU transfer Greg Niland face is starting over after spending three years in a program.

“It’s the glory year of college,’’ Morris said, referring to Griffin and Niland’s lost senior seasons at NU. “It’s the ‘This is it’ year. ‘We’ve got to take advantage of everything.’ Pull the rug out, they come here, they’ve got to reestablish themselves not only as players, but as characters in the locker room.’’

Griffin wanted that character to be defined by a willingness to show his teammates he belonged.

“I came in and I didn’t act like I was better than anybody else,’’ Griffin said. “But that’s just my personality. I tried to work just as hard as everyone else.’’

It didn’t take long for Griffin to earn respect. Upon the start of the team’s 6 a.m. winter workouts, it was impossible to tell that he had been the enemy only a couple months earlier.

“If you’re willing to work hard and bust a gut, our guys will respect you, and they’ll hug you right up,’’ Morris said.

“So far they’ve adapted very, very well. They’ve become leaders in our program, which I anticipated, and they’ve certainly lived true to form.’’

The transition comes with its challenges. Northeastern ran many plays out of the shotgun, and although most of the reads Griffin makes are similar, how he receives the ball has changed.

Griffin said one task has been learning the language of his new offense, and he has spent much of preseason camp with the No. 2 offense. But Morris said Griffin’s arrival was the type of gain that rarely comes along for a college program.

“You can’t recruit three-year, experienced college players,’’ Morris said. “That’s what you’re bringing in. You’re bringing in a kid you can’t ever bring in.’’

Griffin admits that the past nine months have had their trials. From a stellar season to being blindsided at its end to leaving the life he’d built in Boston. But the sociology major plans to transfer back to Northeastern during the spring semester to finish his degree. Despite the hectic nature of his latest move, he feels it will work out for the best.

“It’s been tough, but in a way, I kind of see it as kind of a blessing in disguise,’’ Griffin said. “Not only do I get to play football at a better program in UMass, but I get the best of both worlds.’’