IU's Chris Childers changed schools and majors but finds his spot at running back

Dustin Dopirak
The Herald-Times

BLOOMINGTON — Chris Childers has never had a problem committing to a plan. He's just the sort of person who keeps coming up with new plans. 

At St. Rita's High School in Chicago, he played four sports, more than one per season. In the fall it was football, then wrestling in the winter and both baseball and track and field in the spring. He was an outstanding student, particularly gifted in math and science, but other than playing in the NFL, he seemed to constantly change his answer when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. 

"He changed his mind a lot on a lot of different things," said Todd Kuska, Childers' football coach at St. Rita. "He's able to shift gears and focus on what's at hand. He knows what he wants, he just changes his mind a lot, and he has the ability to adapt." 

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That's Childers' story summed up in three sentences, and it effectively explains about as succinctly as possible how the 6-foot, 220-pound walk-on Indiana running back ended up in the position he's in. The redshirt junior is playing at his second college and enrolled in his fifth major, but he's achieved his dream of being an important cog in a Power 5 football program.

The Hoosiers' running back room has lost depth behind starter Stephen Carr thanks to the transfer of backups Tim Baldwin Jr. and Sampson James and the season-ending injury to running back/wide receiver swingman David Ellis, putting Childers and fellow walk-on Davion Ervin-Poindexter as the next men up. As the bigger player of the two, Childers is the go-to guy when the Hoosiers need pass protection in the backfield, but he's also proven he can catch passes and break open big runs. He rushed for 33 yards on five carries last Saturday against Michigan State, including a 25-yard run. He's rushed for 70 yards so far this season on 12 carries, a healthy 5.8 yards per carry average.

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"It's awesome to see a guy like that be able to come here and buy in and work hard and believe in himself and have an opportunity," Indiana coach Tom Allen said. "When he gets those opportunities, he makes the most of them. We're really proud of him." 

Childers tried to take advantage of all of his opportunities at St. Rita's, a Catholic parochial school on Chicago's South Side. Just getting there from his hometown of Matteson, Ill., was about a 37-minute drive north on Interstate 57. But he made the trip every day and he kept himself busy when he was there with four sports and class, but his heart was always in football and it didn't matter to him that he didn't get a chance to truly show off his game until his senior year. 

St. Rita frequently uses multiple running backs, usually in a split formation. Childers wasn't technically a fullback, but as a junior, he was asked to block for fellow running back Shaun Rule more than he carried the ball himself. Rule rushed for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns on 188 carries that year and Childers rushed for 380 and three touchdowns on just 62 attempts, but Childers had a lot to do with Rule's yards. 

The next year, Rule graduated and Childers got to be the man rushing for 1,512 yards and 20 touchdowns, leading St. Rita to an 11-3 record and a first-round playoff win. 

"Senior year, he took over," Kuska said. "He was a big, physical, pounding guy, but there were times that he got outside and he showed some speed as well. Very physical kid, but great athletic ability." 

It wasn't quite great enough to draw the attention of many Power 5 programs, however. Syracuse and Minnesota showed some interest, but Childers was mostly recruited by Football Championship Subdivision programs and eventually landed on Indiana State. 

"He was very fast, but he didn't have that elite speed that colleges are looking for at the running back position," Kuska said. "So he didn't get as many big offers as he wanted, but Indiana State was a really good option for him."

It was, and from a football perspective, Childers was happy there. He got limited work as a true freshman in 2018, but got six carries for 20 yards on a 7-4 team. The next year, he got 34 carries for 110 yards and three touchdowns and felt pretty good about his progression. 

But academically, he was changing his mindset. He started off as a business major, but took an accounting class and decided he didn't want to do that anymore. 

"It's funny," Childers said, "because my dad's an accountant." 

After that he tried psychology and didn't like that much either. But then he tried mechanical engineering, which suggested to him that he should aim even higher.

"I loved it," Childers said. "It was a lot of fun working with electronics and stuff. I fell in love with it. Then I wanted to get into the more aerospace field. I was looking at that stuff, but it wasn’t offered at Indiana State. I’m a big science guy. I’m into outer space. And my goal was to work for NASA after I take football as far as I could take it."

So Childers made his decision after the 2019 season to go pursue a different major and decided to enter the transfer portal. He informed coach Curt Mallory, son of former Indiana coach Bill Mallory, and made sure he was aware that it wasn't anything personal or even football related. 

"I miss the guy," Childers said. "He took care of me. He took care of me really well. He was one of the only coaches who gave me an opportunity." 

Once Childers got in the portal, however, he decided that as much as anything else, he did want an opportunity to prove he could compete at a higher level. He liked being relatively close to home, and thought Indiana would be a good fit even though it doesn't have an aerospace engineering major either. He reached out to the coaching staff to see if it would be interested in taking him on as a walk-on. Indiana did so, and Mallory even gave Allen his recommendation. 

"He wanted to come here," Allen said of Childers. "He believed he could play here." 

IU's Chris Childers has off-field pursuits 

Childers put together the best plan he could to pursue his NASA dreams, majoring in physics when he arrived at IU in January 2020. However, he said taking difficult math classes online because of the COVID-19 pandemic that hit two months later took a lot of the joy out of the pursuit, and with his football role increasing the workload of both was too much to maintain. He's now a liberal arts major, and said he plans on going back to school for aerospace engineering whenever his football career is over. 

But he believes it's possible, even though he's a walk-on, to pursue that beyond Indiana. He's gone out of his way to make the most of the positions he's in. He didn't get any game action in 2020, but he was named Offensive Scout Team Player of the Week once and named Special Teams Scout Team Player of the Year. 

"My goal was really trying to do more," Childers said. "Falling in love with the boredom of consistency. That's something coach Allen says all the time. Falling in love with the boredom of consistency. ... I wouldn’t say I had the mindset to impress the coach. I just wanted to make my teammates better."

The arrival of running backs coach Deland McCullough gave Childers more specific goals to strive for. 

McCullough believes in a distribution of labor in the running back room, and it's a concept he employed in his previous positions with the Kansas City Chiefs, with Southern California and with Indiana the first time he was its running backs coach. The starter might get the bulk of the carries, but to keep him fresh, McCullough also uses a primary backup, multiple third-down backs depending on the yardage situation, and a "gadget guy," for trick plays or for motioning to the perimeter to empty the backfield. 

Though Childers knew he wasn't going to beat out Carr, Baldwin, James or Ellis for the starting spot, he believed he could make an impact as a third-down back and focused on preparing for that. He was not only the biggest back on the roster, he also developed a knack for hand-to-hand combat in his wrestling days that prepared him well for pass protection.

"I pride myself on protecting the quarterback," Childers said. "When he said, ‘Third down back,' that’s what I do. Guys make millions in the NFL protecting the quarterback. At this level, you’re always going to have a running back who can run the ball extremely well. That’s no doubt. But what I can do as a player is protect the quarterback."

Childers has had that role in every single game, and his responsibilities have grown as other running backs have fallen off. The Hoosiers already believe in his ability to pass protect, but they are more and more willing to put the ball in his hands either through handoffs or short passes. 

"He did a whole lot to improve his footwork," McCullough said. "His suddenness and just his change of direction. He worked on his hands during the summer. If I had to say one area where he made the biggest improvement coming into the fall and then during fall camp, it's yards after contact, pad level. I've always been impressed with the way he runs. He can find holes. Very dependable. He was trending up even prior to the roster alterations." 

He wants to see how long he can stay on that trend and how far it can take him. He has one season of eligibility left at Indiana after this, but doesn't want that to be the last football he plays. 

"I’m looking right now to play football and take it as far as I can," Childers said. "Play in the NFL and follow whatever opportunities I have there."

That's one decision he won't change his mind on until he has to.