Rookie running back Tre Griffin off to a promising start for Salina Liberty

Heron O'Neal wasn't sure what he was getting when he invited Tre Griffin to the Salina Liberty's preseason training camp.

A few flag football videos and some five-year-old junior college film weren't much to go on.

Fast forward a few weeks and the Liberty not only know what they have in Griffin, but they're counting on him to be their featured running back for the foreseeable future.

"What he's done has been the biggest surprise of anybody in training camp," said O'Neal, the Liberty's head coach. "He is a great example of a diamond in the rough."

There has been nothing rough about Griffin's performance so far in his young Champions Indoor Football career. As a rookie in the indoor game, he already has established himself as one of the league's top rushers while helping the Liberty to a 2-0 start.

He showed what he could do in the season opener at Topeka, rushing for 70 yards and three touchdowns in one half while starting in place of reigning most valuable player Tracy Brooks. And then when Brooks went down with an injury on the opening drive last week against defending champion Omaha, Griffin responded with 61 more yards and two scores, including the game winner as the Liberty prevailed, 36-31 at Tony's Pizza Events Center.

"There's no replacing Tracy. That's our MVP running back," Griffin said of Brooks.

And yet that's where Griffin finds himself, starting with Saturday's 6:30 p.m. non-league game against the Queen City Asylum at TPEC. Brooks, the Liberty's do-everything back, is expected to miss the next six to eight weeks with an arm injury.

O'Neal, for one, is confident that Griffin is up to the challenge.

"He saved us in that first game as well as the second game," O'Neal said of the 55-43 victory at Topeka and then last week's rematch of the 2021 Champions Bowl with Omaha. "(Last week), he had the clutch touchdown run in the fourth quarter that put us over the hump."

That's quite a rapid ascent for Griffin, who thought he was done with football five years ago after two seasons at Hutchinson Community College. He was living in Wichita, but as luck would have it, he ended up playing flag football with some members of the Liberty.

"I took a five-year hiatus and then got back into it," said the 5-foot-9, 167-pound Griffin. "Playing flag football, I felt like I still had it. I still had to itch to play at a high level, so I had to make it happen."

Liberty stars Dontra Matthews and Ed Smith also thought Griffin had something and urged O'Neal to check him out. O'Neal was skeptical, but trusted his veteran players enough to take a look.

"He didn't start playing flag football until these past two years," O'Neal said. "I heard about him this year and they showed me some flag video and I was like, 'I need to see what he did with contact football.'

"That's what gave him his opportunity and he's the most impressive guy that we've had in training camp with not knowing what he actually turned into."

After graduating from Wichita Southeast High School, Griffin played two seasons at Hutchinson Community College, where he rushed for 1,042 yards and 12 touchdowns in 20 career games. As a sophomore in 2016, he was the Blue Dragons' second-leading rusher with 533 yards and a team-high eight scores.

"He was very successful there and the film from Hutch is what got him signed with us," O'Neal said. "I'd seen the film that he did with the flag, but to see him with contact football and what he did, that level of juco football is some of the best in the nation."

O'Neal gave Griffin a chance to prove himself in the opener against the expansion Topeka Tropics by resting Brooks for the first half. And the confidence he gained carried over to last week when the stakes were higher.

"It helped me rise to the occasion when we needed it," Griffin said.

The Liberty trailed Omaha by eight points early in the fourth quarter, but got a pair of defensive stops to get back in it. Their second straight interception set up the winning score.

Quarterback Tyrie Adams' 24-yard run on third and long put the ball at the Beef 14-yard line, and on the next play Griffin burst up the middle and into the end zone.

"Tyrie and the offensive line created the spark for us that we needed," Griffin said. "And the o-line got a good push and made it easy for me to get in."

With Brooks out, O'Neal has put his trust in Griffin to carry the load going forward.

"He can go from zero to fifth gear in one step. He's very sudden, extremely quick and extremely shifty, and his vision is second to none," O'Neal said. "You usually have one of those characteristics, but he has all of that into one.

"He's a guy that has that ability that is special because he has the total package."

Even so, Griffin is taking nothing for granted.

"You've got to prove yourself week after week," he said. "Week in and week out, you've got to continue to prove yourself."

Salina Liberty add running back Tristan Gould

With Brooks sidelined for up to two months, the Liberty added running back Tristan Gould from Kennesaw State to their roster.

Gould most recently played at Dodge City and O'Neal said he will see action against Queen City.