Happy as a Hawk

The best running back in the FCS says there’s no place he’d rather be than Monmouth.

Jaden Shirden knows his history. He can recite the names of the guys who’ve blazed the trail he hopes to follow, college football stars who shined out of the spotlight but still found their way to the NFL. Guys like Brian Westbrook at Villanova, Chase Edmonds at Fordham, and of course, the one FCS-to-NFL story that any Monmouth football fan knows by heart.

“Miles Austin!” Shirden says of the former Hawks standout and 10-year NFL vet. “I’m a Cowboys fan; plus, I’m all about the old school. I love all that stuff.”

Old school is a relative term, of course, but one that seems accurate where Shirden is concerned: Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, Shirden’s favorite player and the inspiration for his jersey number, retired a few years before Shirden was born. But for all his appreciation of the past, the Hawks’ consensus All-American running back is very much focused on his immediate future—specifically, his junior season at Monmouth. That he’ll be spending this fall in West Long Branch and not some Big Ten or SEC outpost is quietly one of the more fascinating stories of the sport’s offseason.

By the unwritten rules of college football in 2023, Shirden should be somewhere else by now. That he would enter the transfer portal was widely assumed after an astonishing sophomore season in which he ran for 1,722 yards, the most in the nation across all divisions through the end of the regular season. But Shirden himself insists he was never going anywhere. Simply put: Why should he?

“Going into the portal was never something in my heart or something I believed I had to do,” he says. “Those ‘big-time’ schools had their chances when I was in high school. I don’t forget that. But I’ve seen other people come from this level and get drafted. There’s really no need for me to jump.”

He’d be a big man on any campus, but Shirden is unlikely to be appreciated elsewhere like he is at Monmouth. He landed in New Jersey after a terrific high school career in Connecticut, then ran for 497 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2021. “Toward the end of that year,” he says, “I saw a glimpse of what I was going to do.” As a sophomore, he racked up 156.5 rushing yards per game and 13 touchdowns—eight of which went for more than 50 yards apiece. And he did it all without losing perspective; longtime Hawks head coach Kevin Callahan calls him “a great young man, and a great guy to have in your locker room. He’s extremely grounded.”

Shirden says he’s “always carried myself like that. I just think about where I came from, what God has put in front of me. You just have to keep your head on your shoulders.”

The son of a coach, Shirden knows that hard work has gotten him this far and will take him however much farther he might yet go. He’s spent much of the offseason in the weight room, intent on becoming a stronger, more physical runner. (At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds coming off last season, he’s about the same size as Sanders, his football hero.) He’s also working to improve his blocking and pass-catching. “I’m focused on being a complete running back,” he says.

The NFL will accept nothing less. It’s hard to imagine Shirden playing much better than he did last season, but sooner rather than later, he’ll need to prove his domination of CAA opponents can translate to the pros. It’s something he tries not to dwell on. “I’m just living in the moment,” he says. “Shoot, I don’t know what my next meal is going to be.” But Shirden believes he’ll be ready when the time comes. “All I need is an opportunity,” he says.