West Virginia State linebacker Dustin Crouser (far left) is the Yellow Jackets’ leading returning tackler.

Two-and-a-half years is a long time, regardless of the reason. For someone like Dustin Crouser, who spent his entire childhood playing football, two-and-a-half years feels like an eternity.

But that’s how long his hiatus from the sport was. From his departure from UNC Charlotte to arriving at West Virginia State last season, Crouser put his helmet in the mothballs. Yet after a solid season last year and a dedication to offseason conditioning, the linebacker is ready to give his senior season as a Yellow Jacket his best shot.

That shot begins Thursday evening at the home field of brand-new Mountain East Conference foe Frostburg State.

Crouser’s lone season at Charlotte was 2014, the 49ers’ last as a Football Championship Subdivision independent. And it was a productive one for him, where he totaled 81 tackles and two interceptions. Yet it wasn’t enough for him to stay.

A former All-State selection at George Washington, Crouser left Charlotte after that season, then a walk-on opportunity at West Virginia University didn’t work out. After that, Crouser got a full-time job and hit pause on college and college football.

“I went through a period of immaturity,” Crouser said. “And after working for two years, I thought I might have a little bit left in me.”

When he originally enrolled at State, it was to simply be a student, not a student-athlete. But Crouser’s friend Austin Hensley, who happens to be the Yellow Jackets’ starting quarterback, convinced him to come out for the football team. Hensley got WVSU coach John Pennington to call Crouser, and soon Crouser was clad in yellow and black.

“It wasn’t hard at all,” Crouser said of any difficulty Hensley and Pennington had getting him to join. “When you’ve got guys like that who are good influences for you and good people, you want to be a part of that.”

The decision paid off for both Crouser and the Yellow Jackets. He finished fourth on the team last season with 69 tackles, including two for a loss, an interception and a fumble recovery. He’s the leading returning tackler on the WVSU defense.

And he and Pennington feel the best is yet to come. Crouser said returning his body into playing shape has been one of the hardest things he’s done in his life, and that it took all of last season — and this offseason — to fully get there.

“I feel like I’m just now getting back to my old form,” Crouser said.

After playing at 245 pounds last year, Crouser is now playing at 230 pounds. It’s not just the speed that’s returning, Pennington said. It’s also the field awareness.

“The biggest difference is how he’s moving and processing information,” he said. “The anticipation, knowing the defense, knowing what to look for … not only is he there faster, but he can anticipate, so it’s twice as fast.”

The Yellow Jackets are expected to do big things this season, already picked to finish third in the MEC by the league’s coaches, their highest-ever preseason ranking. And Crouser is expected to build upon his solid 2019. No matter what, he appreciates the opportunity to play college football again close to home among longtime friends.

“I love it, man,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity than I have now.”

Contact Derek Redd at 304-348-1712 or Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.