Central High’s football team will be embarking on a new venture this season — playing without two-time All-State running back Anthony Wales for the first time in four years.
Wales is now carrying the ball for Western Kentucky University after becoming the third-leading rusher in Kentucky history while compiling 8,213 yards and scoring 123 touchdowns, helping the Yellowjackets win three of their four Class 3-A championships.
“It’s going to be tough losing him,” said Central coach Ty Scroggins, who in five seasons at Central has guided the Yellowjackets to four state titles and an overall record of 50-23. “We’re going to look a lot different on offense. We can’t turn around and give Wales the ball to let him do his thing anymore. We cherished the four years we had him, but it may hurt us in the long run. We’ve got to find a running back.”
Who is going to fill Wales’ big shoes? The Yellowjackets will begin finding that out Friday when they host Manual in their season opener at 7:30 p.m.
Senior Deris Cox will get the first crack at the job, but Scroggins will have the option to call on junior fullback Tyree Huguley, versatile senior Tae Shawn Gibbs, junior Phillip Francis or junior Steven Beason.
Francis is a son of ex-Manual and University of Kentucky running back Rodney Francis.
“Gibbs has waited for his opportunity,” Scroggins said. “He has to prove he can step up and play. It may be that we have to get our yards by a collective group. Cox runs harder and has more power than Wales, but he’s not as finesse a runner.
“Gibbs is in a neck-to-neck battle with Sydney Tedford for the quarterback job,” Scroggins said. “We can always put Francis there. He’s a power runner and is faster than anybody we have. Beason broke his leg in June while playing basketball in the backyard. We expect him back by the fifth game.”
Wales carried the ball 274 times last season, leaving Cox just 63 carries for 325 yards and two TDs. Huguley ran 37 times for 149 yards and six TDs.
Gibbs has more experience than Tedford, but Scroggins said: “It would make our team a lot stronger if Tedford gets the job at quarterback. We can then play Gibbs at wide receiver, slot back, running back or cornerback. He can play anywhere.”
Scroggins calls Gibbs “more of an option quarterback. Tedford likes to get his receivers in the game. He’s going to be pretty good. He can throw the ball. With him we’ll be more of an air (passing) team.”
Gibbs said he loves “running the offense and showing the coaches I can throw the ball as well as I can run. It doesn’t matter to me (if he starts at quarterback) as long as I can contribute to the team.”
Whoever starts, Gibbs or Tedford will have three good receivers to throw the ball to — senior Derius Jones, junior Marcel Malone or senior Devonte Yelder. If Tedford starts at QB, Gibbs will give him four receivers.
“We want to get the ball in Jones’ hands as much as possible,” Scroggins said about Jones, who caught 13 passes for 186 yards and one TD last year. Yelder had 15 receptions for 225 yards and three TDs, and Gibbs 14 catches for 279 yards and two scores.
Central returns five starters on offense. Scroggins said his offensive linemen will be smaller but will be able to run faster than last year’s unit. The Yellowjackets have nine returnees on defense, including linebackers Francis, Donald Styles and Demontre Boyd, and Jones.
Central’s recent success under Scroggins has attracted good football players to the school. The Yellowjackets are 36-1 in district play and 23-1 in the playoffs since being in 3-A. The only playoff loss came to Tilghman 24-21 in the 2009 semifinals at Paducah.
Again, Central will play four 6-A teams — Manual, Ballard, St. Xavier and Pleasure Ridge Park — during the regular season, but Scroggins says the tougher competition helps the Jackets prepare for the playoffs.
As for seeking a fifth state crown in six seasons, Gibbs and Jones have set their sights on that goal.
“It does put pressure on us,” Gibbs said. “The 3-A teams are looking to beat us. Every time we win it (the playoffs) it drives us more motivation to win it again. The talent level here is the same as last year. We just have to replace Wales with teamwork.”