Gaining ground

Gaining ground

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Gaining ground

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Never have so many prolific running backs been set to burst through the Southwest Florida high-school football scene.Five running backs are returning to their teams after reaching the 1,000-yard rushing mark in at least one of the past two seasons.Two others finished less than 110 yards from the milestone last year. Three more have the potential to reach the coveted mark this season if they can avoid injuries and adjust to an increased workload.

“This is an exceptional group, no doubt about it,” said Barron Collier coach Billy Sparacio. “They keep working harder and harder. They keep getting bigger and stronger and faster.”THE BACKS ARE BACK

The five returning 1,000-yard rushers have different stories.* Senior Jamelle Eugene of Naples finished just 68 yards shy of 2,000 last season, and his team fell just 12 points short of winning the Class 5A state championship.

* Senior Byron Harris of Lehigh rushed for only 136 yards last year while battling through several leg injuries. He will be looking to return to the form he showed during his 1,000-yard sophomore year.* Sophomore Noel Devine of North Fort Myers garnered statewide, even nationwide, attention over the offseason, when a six-minute highlight film, featuring the top plays from his 1,000-yard freshman season, surfaced on the Internet.* Senior Moises Plancher of Barron Collier rushed for 1,455 yards and an area-best 21 touchdowns last season.

* Immokalee junior Javarris James used to pick watermelons in the 100-degree heat of Georgia. Now he picks apart opposing defenses, rushing for 1,145 yards last year.WORKING HARD

“You just pick ’em up, and put ’em in the truck,” said John James, the father of Javarris and uncle to Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin, referring to the watermelons they have picked in Cordell, Ga.”You load eight to 10 trucks a day,” John James said. “A big truck will hold 800 or 900 watermelons. You have to be an M-A-N. A man. Guys are making 100 bucks a truck. You’ve got to work for it though.”

Javarris James chose not to accompany his father to Georgia this summer. Instead, he worked out with Edgerrin, sometimes at the University of Miami and sometimes at the “Funhouse,” a weight room Edgerrin furnished in Immokalee.”It’s always hot,” Javarris James said of his former summer job. “You hardly ever get a drink, because the more trucks you fill, the more money you can make. I know what hard work is, and that only makes me want to work harder in football.”Like James, Naples’ Eugene had to work harder in football. Eugene overcame a knee injury that wiped out most of his sophomore year. The day after getting hurt, he apologized to his mother for being so upset.

“He told her he was sorry about his lack of faith and feeling sorry for himself,” Naples coach Bill Kramer said. “He knew God had a plan, and that this was going to make him stronger. I never saw anything but a great attitude from him. He was supermotivated.”Like Eugene two years ago, Harris struggled with various leg injuries at Lehigh last year. During track season, however, he again displayed his speed, advancing to the Class 3A state meet and finishing eighth in the 100-meter dash in 11.09 seconds.

Harris also became the father of a son named Byron. The younger Byron was born April 22, and the elder Byron usually takes care of him at night.”He has to change the poop,” said Annie Harris, the baby’s grandmother and Byron’s mother. “Those, he doesn’t like. But I make sure he changes a couple a day. He knows he can’t run away from his responsibilities.”Harris can run away from opposing defenses, as can Plancher, who led all of the returning backs with 21 touchdowns at Barron Collier last year.

“He has a great combination of tremendous quickness and tremendous vision,” Sparacio said. “He has the ability to make you miss or the ability to be physical and run you over. He’s like a bullet coming at you.”DEVINE’S DETERMINATION

At North Fort Myers, Devine didn’t run through defenders so much as around them.A highlight video of Devine surfaced on the floridakids.net Web site, placed there by Derek Williams of sunshinepreps.net. Williams posts clips of statewide prospects for the benefit of college recruiters.

Williams estimated that 20,000 people downloaded the video, which includes an 80-yard screen pass run for a touchdown by Devine. He broke nine tackles on the way to the goal line.”I got 1,200 to 2,000 e-mails from people wanting to see it,” Williams said.One of those e-mails came from ESPN, which wrote an online feature about the video over the summer.

“This kid’s unreal,” said Williams, who called North Fort Myers coach James Iandoli, wondering why Devine’s name wasn’t included with a list of other Red Knights upcoming seniors.”When he told me he was only going to be a sophomore, I about fell out of my chair,” Williams said.

“When Noel Devine rips off an 80-yard screen pass, I couldn’t believe it. The kid’s a freak of nature. There’s no ifs, ands or butts about it. You don’t see many 14- or 15-year-old kids who can bench press 330 pounds. Maybe a 280-pound lineman, but you just don’t see a 180-pound running back doing it.”The screen pass play shows everything Devine brings to the table, Williams said.”Noel’s got his eye on the kid who has a play on him, and he’s ignoring the other guy,” he said. “Noel just turns on the jets. He takes his hand and just swats the arm tackle away. This kid has his eye on one kid and at the same time swats away the other kid. And then he does the spin move. As soon as his feet hit the ground again, he’s at full speed. His determination to score on every play is just unreal.”

UP-AND-COMERSChevon Walker marveled at Devine’s skills after watching the highlight film.

“He’s good,” Walker said. “He might be the best.”But Walker also has the potential to be one of the best, Riverdale coach Scott Jones said.

Walker moved to Fort Myers from Jamaica at age 8. He didn’t play football until his freshman year at Riverdale. Walker rushed for 893 yards in just five varsity games last year, after being called up from the junior-varsity team.”I personally plan on giving him the ball 25 times a game,” Jones said. “He probably sees the field better than anybody I’ve ever coached.”Mariner senior Jermaine Johnson finished with 823 yards rushing last season and could boost that total to 1,000 this year.

Dunbar senior Brandon Fuller also just missed the milestone, finishing with 943 yards on the ground.Bishop Verot senior Lionel McGriff had 674 yards rushing last year but will see an increase in his workload under new coach Joe Redmond, who named McGriff as a team co-captain in May.

And, at Fort Myers, don’t count out senior Deon Hubert, coach Sam Sirianni Jr. said.Hubert, who rushed for just 396 yards in 2003 — he had only 67 carries — will be the primary ball carrier for the Green Wave, with Darvis McBride playing quarterback and fullback.”With what we do, I wouldn’t trade him for any of them,” Sirianni Jr. said of Hubert. “He won’t have the stats those other guys have, but he’s right up there with any of those guys in terms of speed. And he does it all. He’s one of the best blockers. That’s an important part of our offense.”

This year’s group of backs is certainly bigger and could be even better than the collection in 1996, Sirianni Jr. said. Clifton Robinson played his senior season at Barron Collier that year and ran for 2,278 yards. Earnest Graham was on his way to setting the Lee County record of 5,710 yards for career rushing as a junior at Mariner. And Chad Terrell set the Fort Myers single-season mark for rushing, with 1,410 yards.”There will be a lot of depth at running back this year,” Sirianni Jr. said. “There’s a lot of good backs.”

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