Former Idaho State running back set to pace Cobras’ offense
Not many high school football players can say they were teammates with both Reggie Bush and Alex Smith.
Ken Cornist, who signed with the Sea-Tac Cobras on Monday, is on that list.
The San Diego-area native was in the same backfield as Bush, the former Heisman Trophy winner at USC and No. 2 overall NFL Draft pick who recently signed with the Detroit Lions. And Cornist said he was the go-to guy for Smith, who wound up leading the Utah Utes to a BCS bowl and was selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
Needless to say, it was a talented football pool at Helix High School, which won back-to-back Division II California state championships in 2000 and '01. Cornist was a sophomore varsity player on the second title-winning team, and he looked up to both future NFL impact players, particularly Bush.
"It was good to watch and to learn from him because of his character and his leadership," Cornist said. "He's a very humble guy, and it was very cool to watch him go about his business. He didn't say too much, just went out and performed on Friday nights."
It's been a few years since Cornist has played organized football, but the 5-foot-10, 208-pound running back is hungry to prove he belongs. His story of success started at Helix, a charter school in La Mesa, Calif., and it wound through Pocatello, Idaho, where he earned a full scholarship and suited up for four seasons with the Idaho State Bengals.
But after a record-breaking redshirt freshman season in 2005, when Cornist scored 15 touchdowns and helped Idaho State go 5-6, the Bengals switched offensive systems, Cornist's playing time dwindled, and his confidence went with it.
First, a quarterback transferred into Idaho State from Michigan. The team went 2-9.
A year later, another running back — a local high school star — entered the mix, and Cornist had to share the few carries he was getting in a spread offense. The Bengals went 3-8.
When he finally got to his senior year, he was named the starter until a high-ankle sprain all but ended his college career. Idaho State finished 1-11 in 2008, and he wasn't sure where to turn.
"As a player, you want to feel appreciated, and I definitely didn't get that from the coaching staff," Cornist said about his time at Idaho State. "I felt like it was kind of a slap in the face. There was kind of bad blood between my family and my coaches."
He's since calked it up to "small-school politics," calling it both frustrating and motivating. He said he uses it to remind himself he has to earn everything he gets.
Cornist chose Idaho State over San Jose State, UNLV and Boise State because of the opportunity to play running back. He said San Jose State wanted him to play wide receiver, and UNLV liked him as a strong safety. Boise State came in late with a scholarship offer as an athlete, he said.
"As a 19-year-old, you want to play the position you have the heart in," Cornist said.
That first year at Idaho State was promising. Cornist rushed for 784 yards and 14 touchdowns and added 115 receiving yards and a score. He broke the school's single-season touchdown mark that had been in place since 1982.
"It was a big accomplishment," Cornist said. "I'm definitely proud of that record."
In his four-year career, he tallied 1,540 rushing yards and 22 TDs. He also caught 53 passes for 476 yards and two scores.
But the losing got to him. And after 2009, when Cornist earned his bachelor's degree in physical education and had a minor in coaching, he wasn't sure where to turn.
Cornist stayed in Pocatello for three years, and he did some soul-searching.
"Not knowing what the future holds, I'm in this small town and I thought, 'Where do I go now with my life?' " he said. "I kind of hit rock bottom. I had to rekindle my entire winning attitude from there."
Cornist turned to his faith for answers.
"I prayed about it, and God told me this is what I'm here for," he said of playing football. "Once I got that confirmation, I went all-in."
It started with the mental aspect of the game, which Cornist said is now his strong suit. The experiences he had at Idaho State were character-builders.
"Life taught me a whole lot," he said. "It made me stronger mentally. Things that happened before, I don't think I'll get as rattled. I'll stay more composed."
In 2011, even though he wasn't in ideal playing condition, Cornist went to Italy to play professionally. He also got a paying job as a coach.
"I wasn't in tip-top shape when I went over there," he said. "It wasn't my best work, but it was something for my situation. I know what kind of player I am when I'm at 100 percent.
"I couldn't say no, no matter what kind of shape I was in."
At the very least, it provided an outlet to see where he stacked up. One season was all he needed.
"I decided that was my measuring point," Cornist said. "I needed to play in the states, because I felt like my efforts were much more needed in the states."
Since then, he's been a non-stop workout machine, and he's been an academic coach in California. Cornist also has teamed up with former NFL quarterback Jeff Garcia to run camps.
Cornist looks at his opportunity to play with the Cobras this spring as continuing on his path to success.
"I appreciate this game, and I understand it's a privilege to play, not a right," Cornist said. "If you have an opportunity like this, you have to take advantage of it. It's not just given to you."
He's still got the speed with a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. And he'll know he's ready when he steps into pass protection to face an oncoming blitz.
"I really want to get physical with some linebackers," Cornist said. "I want to see where I'm at, see how I respond to the physicality of it."
When he had a chance to come to the PDFL, he chose the Cobras because of their history in the league.
"I haven't won in a long time, so I wanted to go to a place where there is a tradition of winning," he said. "I want to be around guys who know how to win."
By Brian McLean