Gary Brightwell has the slim and speedy appearance of a running back whose primary quality should be elusiveness. The St. Georges junior certainly has demonstrated that valuable trait.
It was evident when he broke free for a 79-yard touchdown run on the first play of the Hawks’ 33-14 semifinal win over visiting Woodbridge on Saturday in the DIAA Division II State Football Tournament.
But Brightwell also has a punishing element to his running style that belies his size and makes him a bigger handful for opposing defenses.
“I try to run like I’m at 210 [pounds] and normally I’m about 170,” said Brightwell, who is 5-foot-11.
Howard, which St. Georges meets in Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. Division II final at Delaware Stadium, knows quite well the damage Brightwell can inflict upon a defense and why he’s already drawing FBS-level college interest.
In a Sept. 18 game against Howard at Baynard Stadium, Brightwell rushed for 151 yards on just 11 carries with two touchdowns, a 58-yarder and a 1-yarder set up by his 39-yard sprint.
He also scored on a 48-yard reception, catching the football at midfield and then eluding several tacklers en route to the end zone.
St. Georges won 35-14 after building a 35-0 lead.
“If you have a guy who shakes and moves but he’s light when you hit him, that’s different than hitting a bowling ball.” Howard coach Dan Ritter said of Brightwell. “And at times you hit Brightwell, it’s like hitting a bowling ball.
“When you’ve got one guy holding him up, two guys trying to strip the ball and two other guys trying to tackle him and he breaks all of them for a touchdown on a long run, you’re very concerned about that.”
Against Woodbridge in the semifinals, Brightwell finished with 203 yards on 16 carries and four touchdowns, the others coming on 2-, 17- and 35-yard second-half runs.
“He’s amazing,” Woodbridge coach Ed Manlove said afterward. “There were times we had him wrapped up and he just kept on going. He’s always moving. He’s one of those guys, if you don’t bring him down, he’s going to make you pay for it. He did a nice job.”
As a sophomore last season, Brightwell bided his time behind All-State running backs Taronn and Keyjuan Selby, twin brothers now playing at Delaware State. He viewed it as a valuable learning experience while getting about seven carries a game.
“They’re good athletes and got the job done,” Brightwell said of the Selbys. “They were a dynamic duo. I just came into this year with the mindset that we’ve got to get to where we’ve got to get. And I take it more seriously. It was time to get business done.”
St. Georges will be seeking its first state football title in Saturday’s game, having lost to Hodgson two years ago in its lone previous championship appearance and falling again to the Silver Eagles in a 2014 semifinal.
On the season, Brightwell has rushed for 1,538 yards on 148 carries – that’s 10.3 yards per carry – and 23 TDs. His five receptions have covered 157 yards and netted four touchdowns.
Growing up and playing youth football in Chester, Pennsylvania, Brightwell developed his aggressive playing style.
“I played with people who weren’t scared to play football,” Brightwell said. “It made me more of a dog out there.
“You punch them in the mouth a couple times, they may not come at you with the same intensity. They’ll back off. And that’s when you can get them with a cutback or keeping running at them.’’
He moved to Delaware – he lives in Bellefonte, between Wilmington and Claymont — in sixth grade and played for the Wilmington Soldiers American Youth Football program.
Old Dominion and Temple have already offered scholarships, St. Georges coach J.D. Maull said. Brightwell was on the sidelines at Lincoln Financial Field for Temple’s game against Notre Dame.
“His vision,” Maull said when asked what quality separates Brightwell. “We saw it in him last and said ‘Wait til next year.’ Now he has more confidence in himself. He’s our guy now and really accepted the role of being a leader, too.
“He can set you up with the moves, but he can also run you over. He’ll lower his shoulder. We’ve actually put in more I-formation stuff with him — before we ran more Flexbone, with the toss — because Gary likes running downhill. But he can cut on a dime.”
St. Georges two-way senior lineman Stefon Woodruff said he plans to make official visits to Delaware, CAA rival Albany and Monmouth . . . Howard coach Ritter’s 15-year-old son Kade is sophomore reserve defensive linemen and end for St. Georges . . . There is also a brother combination on the Division II finalists, as Herman Congo is a senior linebacker and end who starts for Howard while brother Craig is a reserve sophomore defensive back and end for St. Georges . . . This is the second time in three years New Castle County Vo-Tech District rivals have vied for the Division II title, following the Hodgson-St. Georges matchup in 2013.
Contact Kevin Tresolini at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @kevintresolini.