New Mexico State at No. 2 Alabama
When: 3 p.m., Saturday
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium
Records: Alabama 1-0, New Mexico State 0-1
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 95.3 FM, 102.9 FM
Charles Huff was a young coach when he looked Justin Ridgeway in the eye and told him he could start as a freshman at Tennessee State — “if I kept going hard.”
Huff could do that, in the second year of his coaching career, because he’s lived that path himself. Hard work is how he created his own playing career, and in the years that would follow, hard work is how Huff created a rise to a coaching job with one of college football’s powers.
Today, Huff is in the beginning of his second season as a running backs coach in the Southeastern Conference, his first at the University of Alabama, to continue what has been a short but impressive track record of running backs. He helped lure Saquon Barkley to Penn State and coach him to the second pick in the NFL Draft; his former protégé, Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill, could be one of the SEC’s best, and Huff’s stable of ball carriers at Alabama speaks for itself, as will their work in their first season under him.
Now that Huff is at the top of college football and enjoying all the benefits that come with it, his players won’t have to work their way from the bottom as he did. But his players will be influenced by that background, if not grow to adopt it, because it’s worked for Huff and so many that followed him in it.
“Even in the working field, it’s always easier to get the most out of — whether it’s players and coaches or employees and supervisors in the working field — it’s always easier when that employee or that player can see those values within their coach or their supervisor,” Ridgeway said. “Not asking them to do something they have not done themselves.”
Huff got to Hampton University — a small, private, historically black university on Virginia’s Atlantic coast, across the bay from Virginia Beach — with no guarantees. He arrived as a walk-on fullback for a coach and a team trying to revive its glory.
Joe Taylor — a legendary HBCU coach of four HBCU national championship and 10 conference championships — led the Pirates to two Division I-AA playoff berths and a bowl win in the late 1990s, but slipped to seven wins each in the two seasons before Huff’s arrival. By the time Huff left, Hampton won back-to-back MEAC championships and two of Taylor’s four HBCU championships — and Huff was on scholarship as a starting center.
“Some people just got it, and Charles is one of those guys,” Taylor said. “Everything that it takes to be successful, he had no problem doing. The early morning get up, the weight room, coming back late and taking a test the next day. His parents did an outstanding job raising him because he’s a first-class guy.”
Taylor described Huff as a player who was present for everything: any opportunity he was given to be around football or improve at it, he took. He even sang for football.
Huff played for an offensive line coach at Hampton that believed in camaraderie, however he could generate it. In Huff’s tenure, a traveling church choir of offensive linemen was the choice. Tremayne Thomas, who was a freshman at Hampton in Huff’s senior year, remembers days of going from practice to position meetings then straight to choir practice. The group would sometimes travel around to local churches for performances.
“Huff had solos,” Thomas said, representing a singing ability echoed by Taylor.
On the field, Thomas saw the cerebral parts of Huff shine.
“He was undersized, but he was smart,” Thomas said. “He knew where to be and how to position himself, and that’s half the battle.”
Huff now makes a living with that football acumen, and needed every bit of it on his rise up the ranks.
Huff’s first coaching job came immediately after his playing career ended as Tennessee State’s offensive line coach in 2006. In the 13 years since then, Huff has held positions of tight ends coach, special teams coordinator, assistant offensive line coach, offensive quality control, assistant running backs coach, running backs coach, run game coordinator and assistant head coach. He had to toil his way through Tennessee State, Maryland, Hampton, Vanderbilt, the Buffalo Bills and Western Michigan before reaching a full on-field position in the Power 5. (He was a quality control coach in his one year at Vanderbilt and assistant offensive line coach at Maryland.)
Ridgeway benefited personally from Huff’s wide range of knowledge, starting his freshman season as a second-string offensive lineman. Ridgeway played some, including in the first game of his freshman season, but saw more playing time when he transitioned to the role of a blocking tight end. Huff, then a tight ends coach having started as an offensive line coach, helped make the transition possible.
“It was mainly displayed when we had our offensive film sessions, it was really showcased then,” Ridgeway said. “One of the things he was very good at, especially for me being a freshman at the time, he closed the gaps for us. To really connect the dots, you have to have a certain mindset and a certain level of understanding.
“I had a chance to play and play in some big games, and I think Coach Huff was a big part of that.”
Ridgeway is far from the only one to benefit from Huff’s way of business: it’s not easy, but it works. Ridgeway was complimentary of how Huff makes the game fun, when the work required to be great often isn’t. The way Thomas tells it, it’s a way of blending his own personality with the legend he played for.
“Coach Taylor was an old-school disciplinarian. He’d joke around with us every now and then but he didn’t crack a lot of jokes,” Thomas said. “Huff was one of the funniest guys on the team.
“It’s so funny, when I see him in coach mode, I think, ‘Man, they have no idea.’ Or maybe they do: I talked to a couple of his Tennessee State players and they said he was pretty funny.”
Huff makes himself easy to follow in those attributes, and others. As Ridgeway put it, “I knew from the day I stepped on campus, he was genuine.” But Huff is also easy to follow because his methods work for most.
Tashard Choice is an example. Choice was a Buffalo Bill in 2012 and worked with Huff in his one year with the organization; as Choice has since gone from playing to coaching, Huff has been someone Choice said he turns to for advice and help in the profession. Choice’s rise up the ranks has been rapid: Dallas Cowboys coaching intern in 2016, North Texas graduate assistant in 2017, North Texas running backs coach in 2018 and Georgia Tech running backs coach in 2019.
Huff’s own rise, impressive as it may be, may not be over. Thomas said he and Huff still talk on occasion, and Thomas knows Huff has aspirations of being a coordinator. When that day comes, the reaction from those in Huff’s past will be the same as it was when they saw he got a job at Alabama.
“No one is surprised.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson