In some ways his aspirations haven’t changed.

Pete Guerriero’s priority always is to outrun everyone.

“I knew I had the ability to do these things,” the Monmouth junior running back said, “but I never realized I would get to this stardom.”

Guerriero enters Saturday’s second-round playoff game at second-seeded James Madison as the leading rusher in the FCS.

His 220 yards and three scores lifted the Hawks to the first postseason victory in their history in the opening round against Holy Cross last Saturday in New Jersey. It was his fourth 200-yard performance in the last six games.

“It’s just that mentality that I’m always going to have to prove somebody wrong,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going and that’s what has gotten me to this point.”

Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan said: “He has excellent acceleration, so really any time he touches the ball he’s a threat to take it to the end zone.”

But the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder’s college career didn’t begin that way, or even on the football field.

Guerriero said though FCS programs Sacred Heart, Towson, Monmouth and, coincidentally, JMU did reach out – he noted he was invited to visit Harrisonburg for a junior day held by former Dukes coach Everett Withers’ staff – none of those programs offered him a football scholarship after a successful career at Lyndhurst High School (N.J.).

He had a 1,000-yard season as a prep junior and then a 2,000-yard season as an upperclassman.

“But nobody really bid on me, so I decided to go for track,” Guerriero said.

As a freshman sprinter for Monmouth, he did what he’s doing now by outpacing his competition. He captured the 100-meter dash and the 200-meter dash titles at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference outdoor championships.

But he said that was before he realized how much he missed football and before eventually joining Callahan’s bunch for the 2017 campaign.

That first fall with the Hawks, Guerriero earned second-team All-American honors from the American Football Coaches Association and was the Big South’s Co-Freshman of the Year. Callahan said his running back has only become more dependable since 2017, and that Monmouth needs Guerriero at his best on Saturday against JMU.

This season, he’s rushed for 1,888 yards and 17 touchdowns.

“They stretch the field with the [run-pass option], so the box is in their favor a lot of times when they give the ball off,” first-year Dukes coach Curt Cignetti said. “But [Guerriero] can break tackles. He’s very shifty. He’s got really good speed. He’s a good receiver out of the backfield and he’s got a little something. You don’t gain that many yards and not be a really good player.”

Just like Guerriero leads the country in rushing, JMU boasts the top run defense (62.8 yards per game) in the subdivision and hasn’t allowed more than 77 yards (William & Mary’s Bronson Yoder) to any individual runner in a game this season.

“I see that they’re really good upfront,” Guerriero said about the Dukes, “especially in the box because they’re good with their front seven. So, we’re going to have to be strong especially on the outside because they have two really good defensive ends and I see that they have defensive backs that aren’t afraid to come up and help in the run game.”

Guerriero said him and his offensive line, which features first-team All-Big South choices John Gallina and AJ Farris, need to communicate well like they have all year to continue piling up yards on the ground.

The running back added he began gaining belief in their offensive attack all the way back in Week 1 when he ran for 107 yards and a score at FBS Western Michigan.

“I just really felt like since that is an FBS program that I was here and I’m really playing college football,” Guerriero said, “and that this was what I am going to be about and can really succeed at this level. So doing that against an FBS opponent and running hard, being able to break tackles and making people miss in the open field against a good program, I felt like I had confidence.”

One area the Hawks could look to exploit is the interior of JMU’s front with starting defensive tackle Adeeb Atariwa suspended for the first half after being called for targeting during the second half of the Dukes’ regular-season finale at Rhode Island.

The combination of redshirt sophomore Garrett Groulx and redshirt freshman Tony Thurston will likely get the playing time in place of Atariwa, who has 39 tackles and 10.5 tackles for a loss this season.

“Those guys have had a lot of snaps,” Cignetti said. “Groulx has been playing almost every game and so through spring ball, through fall camp, they know what they’re doing. We have total confidence in ‘em and they’ll be fine.”

Contact Greg Madia at 574-6296

or gmadia@dnronline.com

Follow Greg on Twitter: @Madia_DNRSports

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