Monmouth University junior running back Jaden Shirden had broken into the open field against Stony Brook earlier this month when it looked like a defender had a clear angle on him.

“The other guy definitely looks like he's running faster, and as I'm watching from the sideline, Jaden saw the guy coming and he just hit this other gear and beat him by 10 yards to the goal line,” Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan said. “It was like, 'Whoa.' He’s magic.”

For the second straight season, Shirden has coaches, teammates and fans trying to find new superlatives to describe his breakaway speed and running style. He heads into the Hawks’ season finale on the road on Saturday at the University at Albany as the nation’s leading rusher in the FCS with 1,429 yards.

“It’s just being a more complete back, and I believe especially through the first four games, I did that,” Shirden said. “And now it's all coming together.”

His game-breaking speed is best exemplified by the fact that 14 of his 26 career touchdowns are 50 yards or more, including a 95-yarder.

“When he breaks off an 80-yard touchdown, I'm like, ‘All right, I'll run down there with him and celebrate, and then I see him just pulling away so fast I'm like, ‘I give up, I'm not running down there with him,’” said senior offensive tackle JT Cornelius, a former Southern Regional star. “He's lightning.”

In two full seasons as the starting tailback, the junior from Connecticut has put himself at the front of the discussion as the greatest running back in Monmouth University history. He ran for 497 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman in 2021, and then beat out first-team All-Big South Conference running back Juwon Farri for the starting spot last year.

“He became the starter and just immediately took off,” Callahan said.

As a sophomore, he was an FCS All-American and the Coastal Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year after leading all of the FCS in rushing yards (1,722) and rushing yards per game (156.5) on an eye-opening 8.36 yards per carry, which also led the country.

The last time a running back led the FCS in rushing in consecutive years was Sacramento State's Charles Roberts in 1998-99, and Shirden is in position to do that this year.

“It was a crazy journey, very impactful, and something I'll never forget,” Shirden said about last season. “It made me want to take it to another level.”

In the age of the transfer portal, when a player has a season like that at any level in college, the first question is whether he is going to move on to a more high-profile program. Shirden didn’t hesitate in making a return to West Long Branch for his junior season.

Jaden Shirden Football Monmouth vs. Stony Brook 11-4-2023
Out of Jaden Shirden's 26 career touchdowns, 14 of them have been 50 yards or more. (Photo by Mark Brown)

“Basically I knew in my heart, I knew what I wanted to do, and I wanted to come back,” he said. “I really just didn't say nothing. There was nothing to make clear. I just kept my mouth shut and just kept working out. Of course, you're going to have people talk, but I know what I want to do and make my own decisions.”

“A year ago after the season and success he had, there were people reaching out to him and wanting him to transfer,” Callahan said. “His comment to me was, 'Coach I'm not going anywhere. I can run for 1,000 yards anywhere.’”

Shirden, whose 3,648 career yards are third all-time in Monmouth history, dedicated his offseason to adding size while maintaining speed. The 5-foot-9 junior played last season at about 183 pounds and is now up to 195.

“I hit the weight room much harder than I did in the previous season,” he said.

Monmouth also altered his workload during this season to maximize his explosiveness. In their first three games he had 24, 33 and 31 carries, but he has since averaged 17 carries per game.

“He’s averaged anywhere from 16 to 22 in the last five games, and that's when he really skyrocketed,” Callahan said. “I think that's his wheelhouse right there.”

Scouts from every NFL team have been through at some point this season to see Shirden, including five teams at their most recent game. His pure speed is not in question, so a potential NFL future hinges on him being big enough, durable enough, and adept enough at pass blocking to stick at the next level. Shirden has proven to be durable with 207 carries this season, the second-most of any back in the FCS.

He showed his power running during his 171-yard day in a win over Stony Brook on Nov. 4. He bounced off multiple tacklers and bulled his way to the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown that Callahan, who has been Monmouth’s coach for the program’s entire 30-year existence, called one of the best runs he’s ever seen.

“He can combine that style of running with the ability to go 80,” Callahan said. “Once he gets to the second level of the defense, he's gone.”

Monmouth is now hoping “he’s gone” only applies to Shirden’s long touchdown runs next season and not his actual presence. The transfer portal questions that followed last season are going to start all over again with another monster year wrapping up on Saturday against Albany, which is ranked No. 23 in the country in the FCS.

Shirden will make a decision on his timetable.

“We’ll see,” Shirden said.

If an FBS team comes in with a lucrative name, image and likeness (NIL) deal in the six figures, that could certainly change the equation, according to Callahan.

“There's always worry,” Callahan said. “On this level, anyone who experiences success, especially the success he's had, the chance of keeping him is not good. Not only are they being recruited to higher-level programs, they're being given enticements that are financially beneficial for them.

“It's always a concern now that anyone who has success on our team, how long can we keep them? That's unfortunate. It really is.”

That means Saturday is possibly the last time the electric Shirden could put on his No. 20 jersey for the Hawks.

He is coming off an 85-yard rushing day in a 31-24 loss to New Hampshire in which he also had a pair of catches for 10 yards. New Hampshire’s focus on Shirden helped the other superstar on the Hawks offense, wideout Dymere Miller, explode for a school-record 333 yards receiving and a pair of touchdowns.

Miller leads FCS in receiving yards (1,241), which gives Monmouth two of the most prolific offensive players in the country. The disappointing part is for all the gaudy stats, the wins haven’t followed. The Hawks are 4-6 overall and 3-4 in the CAA and hoping to just finish on a high note with a win over second-place Albany.

While a major decision looms for Shirden, Monmouth is grateful to have been able to witness a comet who has streaked across FCS football for two seasons like no back in Hawks history.

“We definitely got lucky with him,” Cornelius said. “He's phenomenal.”

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