LARAMIE, Wyoming — D.J. May has a simple explanation for his move from running back to nickel back/linebacker: "I know what it's like to have football taken from me," he says. "I'm willing to compete and I love it. I just want to play."
After leading Wyoming in rushing as a freshman in 2012, May, a 5-foot-11, 207-pound junior, missed the 2013 season due to a torn left pectoral muscle. Last year, he played in only six games before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, ending his season early.
"God has a plan, so I didn't really stress about it," May said.
Wyoming needs depth at linebacker and nickel back, and May is happy to provide that.
In fact, it was partially his idea.
Especially after sitting out the prior season, he told UW coach Craig Bohl last year that he found little contentment in splitting carries with Shaun Wick and Brian Hill.
"You can't really get in a groove when you've got three running backs rotating like every four plays," May said. "We'd play a game and wouldn't be that tired at the end of the game."
May offered his services, and for any area.
"I was like, 'You know what, coach, I feel like I could help the team somewhere else. ... What if you let me go both ways?'" May said, recounting a conversation early in the season.
Bohl promised to consider it.
One play during Wyoming's 56-14 loss at Michigan State opened the Cowboys coaching staff's eyes.
"He's an explosive kid," defensive coordinator Steve Stanard said of May. "Where it really showed up was on a kickoff. He went down there and was out in front of everybody. He just blew up the returner. Right then you're like, we've got three really good running backs, maybe this young man can play defense for us. It caught coach Bohl's eye."
May felt the same way.
Two weeks later, against San Jose State, Bohl planned to use May at safety in the team's "gator package," but the Federal Way, Washington, native was suspended for the game for a violation of team rules.
Before the following game, at Colorado State, May tore his ACL.
When the offseason rolled around, the conversion picked back up.
"We talked about it a little more and he was like, 'You know what, I think I want you to play nickel for us. I think you can really help the team there with your speed and athleticism and competition,'" May said.
On defense, Stanard expects May to provide a spark, like his one-handed interception Tuesday at practice.
"If he gets the ball in his hands — a fumble recovery or interception — I think we've got a pretty good chance that he might find his way to the end zone," said Stanard, who coaches linebackers and nickel backs.
May's knee limited him during spring drills, but he studied the playbook and prepared his mind for the summer and fall.
Stanard can teach May the schemes . But his athleticism is innate.
"He's got great athleticism, great speed, can put his foot in the ground. We couldn't go out and recruit a better nickel-type kid than him," Stanard said. "Everything's gone smooth. He's got a lot to learn, and he's working his tail off at learning it. He's really working hard to pay attention to the details that we're trying to teach him."
That's made May a front-runner for the first-string nickel back.
If he continues to progress, May could become a mainstay on the field.
"Hopefully we can leave D.J. on the field all the time," Stanard said. "We'll just see how that goes with him trying to pick it up, but our first priority is that he plays nickel. If he can play the Sam (strong-side linebacker) spot, too — and they're very similar in base and nickel defense — then we won't have to take him off the field. That's our goal now. We'll see how that goes."
Bohl said May could become an impact player for UW, the type of player the Cowboys lacked in 2014.
"Well, first of all, he can run under 4.5," Bohl said. "He plays that way. He plays with that same type of speed. ... If there's a play that pops, all of the sudden he's a white blur with his white (practice) jersey running. Those were things that we were deficient in last year. When a play would pop, as opposed to being a 6-yard gain, it'd turn into a 25-yard gain. Beyond effort, just speed and athleticism, he's continuing to learn. He's taking the role well and we're encouraged by what he's done."
More than anything, May hopes he'll play a high number of snaps.
After playing in just six of Wyoming past 24 games, he's been waiting for this.
"Now I'm here," May said. "Anything they need me to do, I can do it."
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com