With 10 touchdowns of 50 or more yards, Vic Wharton III has a proven ability to score from anywhere on the field.
But every play isn’t a scoring play, which Independence coach Scott Blade sometimes has to remind the Tennessee commitment.
As the 9-3 Eagles enter the Class 6A quarterfinals against Hendersonville on Friday, Wharton’s biggest plays haven’t always involved the most direct paths to the end zone. Instead of running north or south, he’ll sometimes involve both directions as well as east and west in his route.
“You hold your breath sometimes,” said Blade, who first became aware of Wharton four years ago — when coaching at Oak Ridge while Wharton was a freshman at Knoxville Catholic — before becoming his coach last winter.
“As a coach, you don’t want to take away a kid’s instincts. It’s not always as easy as black and white. For him there’s some gray matter in there. Sometimes it bites you, and you just live with it. But more times than not, he’s going to make something out of nothing.
“A kid that’s had so much success — (former Hillsboro star and UT signee) Eric Gordon was like that . You don’t want to be so strict and regimented that you take away a kid’s ability to make the big play. For us we’ve made a living off big plays this year.”
Wharton has scored on three kickoff returns of 90-plus yards, two punts returns of 60 or more yards, a 99-yard fumble return and four offensive plays of at least 50 yards.
Few of them were as simple as a sprint from point A to point B.
“Sometimes (the play) calls for going east-west to finally see something — but other times, it’s me being stupid,” said Wharton, who isn’t shy about reversing field or giving ground with the ball in his hand in an effort to break a long run.
“It’s sometimes me trying to make something happen when there’s nothing there. I’ve got to work on that, go down when it’s not there. Sometimes I have to realize that, but I hate when it happens. I want to go for the home run.”
Over his high school career, Wharton has 20 touchdowns on kick returns. That’s a record that earns the trust of a coaching staff and a team.
“He likes to go all the way around the field,” Independence tackle Stephen Satchell said. “It’s fun to watch, and sometimes when you’re trailing behind him you can get an easy, cheap block.
“Sometimes it’s annoying when it doesn’t work out. It’s great when it does, but when it doesn’t, you wish he’d just run the play. It’s worked out most of the time. He’s saved us a million times over. We just let him do his thing.”
For Blade the reward far outweighs the risk.
“These aren’t every-year type of guys,” Blade said. “He’s the first one to know ‘I screwed up.’ It doesn’t do any good for me to rip him or chastise him in front of the team. All I say is, ‘Let’s make sure we’re making good decisions,’ and he understands.
“It comes back to letting the athlete’s athleticism take over sometimes.”