It has taken four years, but Eric Samuels finally is feeling comfortable in his role with the Commodores. Like a pinball, Samuels has bounced around all over the field from defense, to special teams, to offense and back to defense during his four seasons at Vanderbilt.
If there was a utility position in football, Samuels' name would be synonymous with it.
Samuels' journey as Vanderbilt's nomad began as a true freshman when he saw time as a reserve defensive back. As a sophomore, the Eustis, Fla., native started the season at defensive back and led the team in kickoff returns. But when running backs Warren Norman and Zac Stacy were lost for the season to injuries, Samuels was asked to move to the other side of the ball due to the lack of depth. He had played cornerback and running back in high school, so the transition to offense wasn't difficult.
"The staff knew that I played running back so they asked if I'd maybe switch," Samuels recalled. "I told them that whatever I need to do to help the team, I will."
So Samuels switched and took carries in the final three games of the 2010 season, gaining 43 yards on 10 attempts.
Samuels' carousel ride between positions was still not complete. Following the coaching change before his junior season, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop asked Samuels if he'd be interested in returning to the defensive side of the ball as a safety. After playing on offense, defense and special teams, Samuels knew defense is where he wanted to be, so he willingly made the change.
"In high school, I was offensive-minded," Samuels remarked. "That is all I thought about. That's what I thought I was coming to college for and then I got here and I just fell in love with defense."
Three years and three positions later, Samuels now feels settled and at home as a safety.
"It is kind of comforting that I finally found a position that fits me best," Samuels said. "Like I told the coaches, whatever I need to do to help my team and whatever position they want me to play, I'll play to the best of my ability."
As a result of his willingness and flexibility to play multiple positions, Samuels has become quite the asset for the Commodores. He currently serves as a backup strong safety and is reliable against the run and pass.
"He's kind of like a utility infielder in baseball," Shoop said. "I recognize that as an important role and I think he does and I think the guys respect what he does."
Samuels typically plays Vanderbilt's hybrid "star" position, where he is utilized much like a nickel back. He has thrived at the position because it has allowed him to combine his experience at cornerback and safety.
"Eric has all the skills I'm looking for in a nickel," Shoop said. "If they had an all-league nickel, I thought he really embodied what that was last year."
Samuels never imagined it would take until his senior year before finally feeling settled into a position, but he doesn't regret the decisions he made to put the team ahead of himself.
"It has been fun," Samuels said. "Every time they asked me to move, I kind of got down, but then I always remembered just to work as hard as I can and make the most of my opportunity and that is what I did at every position I played."
Switching positions as many times as Samuels has took a lot of patience and maturity on his behalf. For Samuels, they are two of the many virtues that were ingrained deep inside him at a younger age than most.
Raised by his mother, aunt and grandmother, Samuels was void of a father figure in his life. Instead, it was Samuels who became a father figure to his younger siblings.
"My mom worked all the time to support us and I would come home from school and cook all the time for our family," Samuels said. "My mom worked very hard and I wanted to help as much as I could."
Samuels knew of his father growing up, but he has not been a part of his life.
"I didn't have a father figure to look up to," Samuels said. "I have met my father and spoken with him, but he wasn't in the picture."
Now Samuels is doing what he can to be that role model for so many others. Whether it is on the field or off the field, Samuels makes a concerted effort to remember where he came from and the difference he can make because of the platform his athletic ability has blessed him with.
This semester, Samuels is pre-student teaching at Whitsitt Elementary in Nashville, where he works with special education children. In May he will graduate with a degree in special education and hopes to one day teach.
"I just love working with kids in general," Samuels said. "I don't know what drew me to the special ed part, but I know growing up I didn't have anyone to look up to and I felt like me going back home, I'll give the kids something to look up to and something to build off of."
Samuels was a three-sport star at Umatilla High School, where he is adored to this day. He started for two years in basketball, was the 200-meter district champion in track and started at running back and defensive back for three years on the football team. "He was probably one of the best all-around athletes that I had in the eight years that I was a head coach at Umatilla," said Ron Timson, who coached Samuels in football all four years of high school.
Still, even Samuels' athletic ability was not enough to carry the team from the depths of the standings. Umatilla won three games during Samuels' sophomore year and two games when he was a junior. His senior year was even worse as the team finished 0-10.
It was a very difficult way to close a high school career as a senior, but Samuels never let his feelings of disappointment affect the positivity he outwardly displayed to the rest of the players, many of which strived to be just like him.
"He was one of our captains as a senior and he was very upbeat and he gave us a great effort every night, and he encouraged the other guys to do the same thing," Timson said. "We were just a little bit down on overall talent at that time but he never shirked his responsibilities or anything. He probably played just about every down of every game for us and he wanted to be on the field."
Even though the team finished winless as a senior, Samuels' drive to succeed was unwavering. As the school's best athlete and the school's most popular student, having been selected homecoming king, Samuels understood that he was someone others looked up to, and he wasn't about to disappoint.
"He's always continued to feel that he should be a positive influence ever since he was in high school and as I told him, you've got this opportunity to provide a lot of young kids hope for the future," Timson said.
And that is exactly what Samuels has strived to do.
Whether it has been his workmanlike team-first approach of switching positions for the betterment of the team, or his inspiration to help those with disabilities, Samuels has put others first throughout his life in his quest to represent his community and family and become the person he never had.
"Coming from nothing, not having a father figure and coming from a school that wasn't really big in football, I just feel like I can help the other kids make them think they can be anything they feel like."