A bevy of backs could put some flair in the season.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
Could this be the year of the running back in the Steel Valley Conference?
Judge for yourself.
Warren Harding has Ohio State recruit Maurice Clarett. Boardman has the powerful Evan Beard, and Ursuline has the explosive duo of Terrence Graves and Delbert Ferguson, who combined for nearly 500 yards in last year's Division IV state championship game.
Fitch has Ray Betts and Davanzo Tate, and Mooney is hoping its young runners will step up to the level of its competition.
Most coaches pick the 6-foot, 231-pound Clarett, who rushed for just over 2,000 yards in the last two seasons, to be the head of the class.
Exceptional: "I haven't had many like that in my 28 years of coaching," said Thom McDaniels, the former Canton McKinley coach, in his second year coaching the Raiders. "He's an unusual combination of speed, power and quickness."
McDaniels feels good about the talent surrounding Clarett this season. Ursuline coach Jim Vivo agrees.
"Harding is loaded," quipped Vivo. "They could beat Florida State."
Beard, the 6-0, 215-pound senior who is being sought by many Mid-American Conference schools in addition to Duke and Wake Forest, has been the focal point of Boardman's running game over the past couple of seasons.
He comes into his senior season already having gained a school-record 2,600 yards, including 1,300 as a sophomore.
"Evan is a power runner," Boardman coach Garry Smith said. "He's gotten a little bit faster as far as breaking away, and he's gotten stronger and stronger every year."
What should be interesting to watch is how Beard holds up to playing consistently at linebacker. He played two games there last season, but Smith said he plans to use him in larger defensive doses in 2001.
Ursuline's dangerous combination of Graves and Ferguson was on display in last year's Division IV state title game when they rushed for 499 yards and seven touchdowns against Coldwater.
If opponents didn't know about Graves (6-2, 205) and Ferguson (6-3, 215) before, they do now, Vivo said.
"I don't remember having the backs that are rushing in the SVC this year all at the same time," said Mooney coach P.J. Fecko, a member of the Cardinals' staff for the past seven seasons. "Obviously, there's been great backs over the years, but to have them all in the same year is pretty unusual."
Fecko's Cardinals graduated their entire backfield from last year. He's curious to see how his inexperienced players will develop.
Trying to improve their standing during preseason practice was senior quarterback Anthony King, tailbacks Rob Colaianni and Kevin DuBose and fullbacks Patsy Malie and Tony York.
Yards guaranteed: "We may not have a featured back, but we're going to rush the ball and gain some yards," Fecko said. "You'll see that our yards will be spread out between three different guys."
At Fitch, coach Carl Pelini has the luxury of Betts (5-11, 190), a senior, and Tate (5-9, 170), a sophomore.
"Betts is a prototypical fullback," Pelini said. "He runs hard and low to the ground, and he gets the tough yards."
Pelini said Betts' presence in the backfield should help free Tate, who's got "great speed and a knack for finding the seams."