“He’s a guy that you want to get the ball in his hands as much as possible,” Coach Randy Trivers explained earlier this month, and the statement draws a knowing smile from Randolph.
Passing attacks may be in vogue elsewhere, but there is an intoxicating quality surrounding the presence of a featured tailback in high school, both because of the grit required to succeed in that role and the security it provides in the crucial moments of a game.
In a nationally televised upset over DeMatha last year, Randolph declared to his entire team that the Eagles could lean on him. He then proceeded to take the game over by sheer force with 117 rushing yards on 34 carries.
The 5-foot-7, 175-pound senior runs with the fury of a player who, admittedly, hears all the doubts about his diminutive size. But it’s the oversized responsibility he must shoulder on the field that is his driving force.
“I might be exhausted, tired, but I push myself to keep fighting for them hard yards, and I really don’t think about it until after the game, like, ‘Dang, I got the ball this many times,’ ” Randolph said. “. . . I tell my teammates all the time that they can depend on me when times get hard. Those are moments I live for.”
Randolph, coming off a junior season in which he carried the ball 290 times for 1,823 yards and 23 touchdowns, is the region’s leading returning rusher heading into the 2016 football season. It’s a designation that increasingly holds more meaning at the high school level than anywhere else.
Forty-seven local players averaged more than 100 rushing yards per game in 2015. Only 30 Football Bowl Subdivision players could claim the same production. There were 20 area high school players who averaged more than 19.5 carries per game last fall. Only one NFL player — Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson — carried the ball as frequently.
At Stone Bridge, for instance, Coach Mickey Thompson already can tell visitors that senior Josh Breece , back after a 1,554-yard season in which he averaged 6.4 yards per carry, will get the ball when it matters most over the other tailbacks in the Bulldogs’ signature single-wing offense.
“At this position, you have to believe you’re the best player on the field at all times,” Breece said. “You have to set the tone for the offense.”
Relying on a single player, of course, comes with its inherent injury risks, and this preseason already illuminated that fact for some of the area’s most touted tailbacks. DeMatha standout running back Anthony McFarland suffered a broken ankle in a scrimmage last week, and Hylton junior Ricky Slade has been slowed by a knee injury after missing the end of last season with a broken femur.
This is why coaches such as Hylton’s Tony Lilly proclaimed “the days of running a tailback 30 times a game, that’s hard on a body,” and DeMatha’s Elijah Brooks doesn’t feel comfortable until he has three options in the backfield.
With danger always a step or a tackle away, there is a unique bond between opposing tailbacks because “we understand each other, the punishment, everything we got to go through,” said Good Counsel’s Mohamed Ibrahim , who rushed for 1,450 yards on 258 carries last season.
Combating these dangers involves a mixture of preparation and luck. Randolph adopted a nightly stretching routine to improve his flexibility and avoid injury carrying a heavy load. Breece, meanwhile, has added 15 pounds to his frame over the past eight months to prepare for the hits he will absorb this fall. Ibrahim did the opposite, dropping 20 pounds for conditioning purposes because he plans to play more cornerback this year.
Down the street at Sherwood, Boston College-bound tailback Travis Levy rarely gets hit in practice because he also will play safety again this year. Keeping the senior fresh and healthy is a constant concern.
“That’s been a tough question to answer because he’s been by far the best guy we have, so he’s played a lot of reps,” Sherwood Coach Chris Grier said. “If you take him out, he’s going to find his way back in there pretty quickly. It’s a struggle, and it’s going to be a struggle this year because he’s the best player on our team.”
But featured tailbacks like Levy (208 carries for 1,422 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015) only come around so often.
Levy is from a military family and arrived in Sandy Spring as a nomadic freshman, having moved eight times before high school. Teammates still remember how mesmerized they were in those first practices, when a relative unknown to players and coaches got elevated to the varsity roster after just one scrimmage and emerged as the future of Sherwood football.
These days, like the collection of running backs whose production will dictate the course of their teams’ seasons, Levy’s presence can’t be measured only in yards.
“It really motivates us because we know if we do our job,” senior offensive lineman Kevin Russell said, “he’s going to break it for a touchdown.”