Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
OGDEN — It was as if Bo Bolen had never been gone at all.
Sure, he spent two years serving an LDS Church mission in the Philippines, so last Saturday's season-opener was his first real football game since 2010 for the Weber State athlete, who earned second team All-American honors as a freshman in 2009 and was named to the All-Big Sky Conference second team in 2009 and 2010.
But it would appear the junior running back and kickoff return specialist never missed a beat as he rushed for 85 yards and two touchdowns and returned a first-quarter kickoff 100 yards for another TD in the Wildcats' 50-40 victory over Stephen F. Austin.
Never mind that the 5-foot-9, 200-pound performer told reporters after Saturday's win that "I'm not as good as I was back in the day. I'm a little slower and not as strong."
Actions, of course, speak much louder than words. And Bolen's outstanding performance spoke (or perhaps shouted) that the young man from Aurora, Colo., is definitely back in the business of frustrating opposing defenders and running over would-be tacklers.
Yes, indeed, this Bo knows football, too.
"Football doesn't change — it's still the same defenses, the same coverages, the same concepts on offense," he said. "Football doesn't change, but I feel like I understand it a little more.
"I'm not as in shape as I was — I'm really not," he laughed, "but I'm trying my hardest and I'll be back there by the end of this season."
The Wildcats' second-year head coach, Jody Sears, certainly isn't complaining.
"He's probably his hardest critic," Sears said of Bolen, who's one of the ’Cat co-captains and will help lead them into Saturday's in-state matchup with the University of Utah. "He works so hard and to put himself through camp and not miss a day after being gone for two years, he just did a heckuva job through the spring and the summertime.
"He's not in as good a shape as he'd hoped that he could be, but shoot, he's gonna play himself into really good shape.
"I think he's faster now," Sears said, "but if he wants to get faster, that's awesome because I actually think he's faster now — but don't tell him that. Any time you can go 100 yards virtually untouched, I mean, that's pretty darned good."
The impressive 100-yard play was the first such kick return TD in Bolen's collegiate career.
"I did pretty well in kickoff returns before I left for my mission, but I had never returned one to the house," he said. " I was just thinking, 'Oh, please don't let the kicker catch me.’ ”
Well, that obviously didn't happen, and Bolen is glad to be back playing football again after spending two years of his life serving the Lord.
But he didn't really miss the game all that much while he was gone, because he was committed to being the best missionary he could be and was completely focused on the work at hand.
"The good thing is in the Philippines there's no real seasons — there's the hot season and the hotter season — so I didn't ever really feel the football vibe because it never really got cold," he said. "I was pretty focused on my mission, and I think it was a little easier because I was so focused. I wasn't really thinking about football that much.
"My mom and dad would send me emails telling me what's happening at Weber State and in college football, and I would miss it a lot at times. But other than that, it wasn't bad. I didn't miss it that bad.
"They did a good job of not really mentioning really anything, which is kind of what I needed," Bolen said. "There were some things I needed to know, like when coach Mac (Ron McBride) was not here any more, that was something I had to know. I was aware of the coaching changes, but as far as the records and which players were doing well, I had no idea."
Getting himself back in game shape was more work than he thought it would be.
"Since I started playing football in third or fourth grade, I haven't really stopped playing football," he said. "So I haven't had anything longer than like eight months where I haven't played football. And then all of a sudden to take two years off, you're gonna lose a lot.
"I think I was a little naive on how out of shape I would get, because I've never been out of shape before. I thought, 'It'll be easy, give me a month.’ ”
And he admits that, with all the upheaval in WSU's program while he was gone — McBride retired, John L. Smith took over the coaching reins but then abruptly left without ever coaching a game for the ’Cats, and Sears took over as interim coach last season — he seriously considered going to play somewhere else when he got back, for both athletic and academic reasons.
"I was looking around and I was actually really thinking about transferring," Bolen said, who was pleased to learn that, while he was gone, the school had added an electronics engineering program he was interested in pursuing.
"I had some experiences on my mission where I just felt like I should come back, and I wasn't sure why. But I just knew there was a reason I had those feelings. A lot of my family members were saying, 'You should just transfer and go someplace bigger.' And I was just like, 'I just have a feeling that that's where I need to be.'
"So far it's paid off," he said of staying at WSU. "I've met some people and I just like it here. It feels like home. I'm just used to Weber State; I'm a Wildcat, and I can't imagine playing somewhere else."
Coach Sears and his staff are mighty glad he decided to come back and play for the Wildcats as well.
"From a leadership standpoint, from a toughness and a work ethic standpoint, he obviously brings instant credibility because he's had success in the conference," Sears said. "And his production obviously speaks for itself. Just to have him back in the program is really, really good because we've got quite a bit of youth and it's good to have them see a guy who's been through the fire.
"And he's mature and a leader who's not afraid to get up there and tell the guys, 'Hey, we ain't doing this stuff any more. This is the way we're doing things around here, and if you're not gonna do that, then you need to hit the door.' And in so many words, he's said that, so that's awesome. He's not afraid to hold guys accountable, which is what we ask our kids to do is to be accountable to each other.
"We have two principles — honesty and accountability — and it's great when the leadership can come from within," Sears said. "Now you can make some growth; now you become a player-led team instead of a coach-driven team, which is exactly what I'm all about is to make sure this program is led by the players.
"When he got back last December, I had a couple of conversations with him. I probably would've felt the same way — shoot, my coach (McBride) isn't there any more; you guys went 2-9; really, what's going on up there? — and I had to do a little recruiting. But I don't blame him whatsover to maybe question a few things. I think we all would. But at the same time, too, I think he understands now the value that he brings to this program. He's an extremely valuable component to us, and there aren't words to describe how happy I am to have him here."
Bolen — his full name is Bo Taimalelagi-Craig Bolen, and he is the great-great grandson of Taimalelagi Malietoa, a former king of Samoa — likes what he sees in coach Sears and his staff, too.
And Bolen says the Wildcats will do their best to not be intimidated by the big-time atmosphere for Saturday's game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. He was on the team the last time Weber State played there in 2008, when the Utes were on their way to a BCS-busting season.
"Coach Sears is doing a great job of changing the culture here, getting into our minds that we're not the Weber State of last year (when the Wildcats sputtered through that 2-9 season) and that we're great," Bolen said. "I've earned so much respect for coach Sears and just what he's doing, and coach Sears as a human being is just a great man.
"I like the coaching staff a lot. I was really iffy about them in the spring, but I like them a lot now. Coach Sears showed me respect from the get-go, and he's earned my respect. Just because he has my respect, if he says anything to me, I'll do it and respect it, just because of who he is as a person.
"Utah went undefeated and had that great team that year (’08), and I was a redshirt that season," Bolen said. "I noticed the atmosphere and it's exciting and all that but, at the end of the day, they're still 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds just like us.
"Granted, they might be a little bigger and a little faster and there's more of them, but they're people just like us. And I think if we just remember that, we should be fine."
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