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Carrying the load: Five Mahoning County running backs look to spark offenses and play big roles in 2023

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple Mahoning County running backs from left: Austintown Fitch's DJ Williams, Ursuline's Christian Lynch, Canfield's Danny Inglis, Poland's Cole Fulton, West Branch's Boston Mulinix.

YOUNGSTOWN — Running the ball has long been an instrumental part of having success in high school football.

As a result, running back is one of the more valuable positions on the field for a team. Where the run game goes, a team’s success likely follows.

Just last season, strong, physical ground attacks helped propel Canfield and South Range to their first state championships in program history.

But even as football continues to evolve and become more and more oriented in the passing game, running backs are still pivotal to a team’s success, and the Mahoning Valley has a plethora of stars in the backfield this upcoming season, including Ursuline’s Christian Lynch, Poland’s Cole Fulton, Austintown Fitch’s DJ Williams, Canfield’s Danny Inglis and West Branch’s Boston Mulinix.

CHRISTIAN LYNCH, SENIOR, URSULINE

Lynch is aiming high this season.

After running for 1,857 yards and 21 touchdowns on 290 carries a season ago, Lynch hopes to hit the 2,000-yard mark this season, according to head coach Dan Reardon.

“I just have to create more explosive plays,” Lynch said.

“Just be calm and take what’s given to me.”

Lynch ran for more than 100 yards in all but five of Ursuline’s games last year, while also hitting the 200-yard mark in four of the team’s first six games.

As the season wore on, Lynch said the game finally started to slow down for him as he got more comfortable as Ursuline’s starting running back.

“Before, I used to get antsy, but now things are running more slowly for me and I can run smoother,” Lynch said.

Although Lynch now has a full season of experience under his belt, the yardage milestone might be a little bit more difficult to reach this season.

The Fighting Irish graduated five seniors from their offensive line a year ago, so this season, Lynch will be running behind a much more inexperienced group of offensive linemen.

“Our expectation this year is that he’s the veteran player, he needs to make those guys good,” Reardon said. “Last year, those guys were the veterans, they needed to play well as Christian was learning. This year, that’s why his vision is so much more important — he needs to make the right cut at the right time to buy time for our linemen to develop.”

In his first full season as the starting running back, the Irish coaching staff had questions for Lynch.

They wanted to see how he would hold up over a full season at the varsity level, plus they wanted to see how he’d handle the increased, heavy workload of carries.

“Christian did a great job last year improving as the season went on,” Reardon said.

“We had a big question mark. …It wasn’t a knock on him, it was just (previously) there had been a really good guy in front of him that he was learning behind. …He had a lot of bumps and bruises as the season went on, but (durability) was never an issue. He showed the ability, and that was huge for our football team.”

After answering all those questions last year, Ursuline will again lean heavily on Lynch to help guide the offense this season.

“One thing we talked a lot about with him is using his vision to make the right cut at the right time — waiting till the last possible second and reading everything else,” Reardon said.

“We also want to use him out of the backfield in the passing game more. That was something we didn’t ask him to do very much last year. My hope is that he can be a big part of our pass offense, as well.”

COLE FULTON, SENIOR, POLAND

Fulton was thrust into a difficult situation last season.

A multitude of injuries on offense throughout the year forced Fulton to carry the bulk of the load for the Bulldogs offensively. Poland’s starting quarterback missed the second half of the season, plus there were a handful of injuries at receiver and on the offensive line. In all, head coach Tom Pavlansky estimated that key players missed a total of nearly 80 combined games.

As a result of the injuries, Fulton was forced out of his normal role at running back and was moved around to different positions. He might play one position on one play, then line up somewhere completely different on the next play.

“The injuries obviously hurt (us), but it was fun just moving around and being a versatile player,” Fulton said. “I was going out to wide receiver one play, running back the next and quarterback the next play. It was fun.”

And now, he’s better for it. Fulton has become a true all-purpose player. He’s become a jack-of-all-trades — a multidimensional, multifaceted weapon that Poland can use in a variety of ways offensively.

“I’m not a one-dimensional player,” Fulton said. “Not just running the ball, but I can go out and catch some passes, run from quarterback, run from running back, take a jet sweep every once in a while — I can do whatever.”

This year, with the Bulldogs fully healthy again, Fulton gets to focus on his normal position at running back, but don’t be surprised if you see him still getting moved around the field again to keep defenses on their heels.

“I’ll still be doing a little bit of everything, but we’ve got Dom Pagano back at quarterback, so he’ll for sure be taking all the snaps,” Fulton said.

Fulton is part of a particularly large senior class this year for Poland. The Bulldogs will have 19 seniors on this year’s squad, which is almost half the total varsity roster.

It’s a group that has been together for a long time, all the way back to their Little Bulldogs youth football days.

“We won the (youth football) ‘Super Bowl’ in sixth grade with the same guys on the team,” Fulton said. “It’s a great group of guys. We’ve just been working this offseason. We’ve been working for years now and we’re ready to go showcase that out on the field.”

With so much experience back, Fulton and the Bulldogs have high hopes for this year.

“Individually, I just want to showcase the best I can do and give everything on the field,” Fulton said. “As a team, we just want to win.”

DJ WILLIAMS, SENIOR, AUSTINTOWN FITCH

In previous seasons, Williams has had to share the spotlight in Fitch’s backfield. Now, the spotlight is all his.

Williams, along with now-graduated running back Jamell James, built a formidable backfield tandem in the Falcons’ backfield last year. They both tallied more than 1,000 rushing yards and they each had double-digit touchdowns. However, with James off to Fordham, Williams will get the lion’s share of carries this upcoming season.

“For the past three years, since I’ve been a freshman, I’ve been happy to split carries with upperclassmen, and we all did a good job,” Williams said. “But this year, it’s just going to be me. I feel like that all helped me, and them being upperclassmen helped train me for this moment for my senior year to be by myself.”

Having played youth football and grown up together, Williams said he and James have a close bond.

During that time, the pair always supported each other, and James was always there to help Williams whenever he needed it.

“I talk to him almost every day,” Williams said. “He’s always just telling me to ‘show out this year, we all know what you can do, you just have to go out there and do it.'”

With his expected increased workload, Williams has set a similar goal for the season to Lynch — 2,000 yards.

Williams feels he’s a better player and a better running back this year. And as a result, better suited to chase the yardage milestone.

“I feel like I got more explosive and faster,” Williams said. “I’ve got a few more moves in my bag now. I’m still going to stick it to the ground and pound, but I might add a few more moves in there and spice it up.”

With his college commitment also behind him now, Williams can focus on the season ahead.

Williams committed to Ball State back in June, with the Cardinals standing out among a deep crowd of schools, including Navy, Temple, Akron, Army, Central Michigan, Kent State, Youngstown State and Eastern Kentucky.

“Ever since Ball State first offered me back in January, I’ve just had a great relationship with all the coaches and offensive coaches,” Williams said. “They’ve just all been good to me and always treated me nice. Every time I go up there, they always show a lot of love and they always call to check how I’m doing. That’s what made me commit.”

DANNY INGLIS, SENIOR, CANFIELD

Inglis and the Cardinals scaled the mountain last season, winning Canfield’s first football state championship in program history.

Inglis played a key role on that title-winning squad, rushing for 816 yards and 12 touchdowns on 129 attempts, which included several big runs during the playoffs that were instrumental in the Cardinals’ playoff run.

But this is a different year with a different team, and Inglis and his teammates are focused on the upcoming season.

“I feel like a lot of people are trying to doubt us, and I feel like we’re playing with a chip on our shoulder,” Inglis said. “It’s cool to live in the state championship era, but that’s in the past and we’re just focused on the now.”

The Cardinals graduated a massive 28-member senior class from last year’s team, including star quarterback Broc Lowry, who was a significant part of Canfield’s offense and did a little bit of everything, and more, for the Cardinals.

With Lowry gone, players like Inglis will see more usage and will be a critical part of this year’s Canfield squad.

“It’s a big change for us,” Inglis said. “I feel like we’re going to have to spread the ball around more and get more guys involved, which is going to be good, that way teams can’t key on just a single player.”

Not only is Canfield a different team than it was last year, but Inglis feels like a different player and running back than he was last year.

“I think I have the speed to be on the outside, but I also feel like I have the strength and toughness to run inside the box too,” Inglis said. “I feel like that’s all a credit to (Canfield head) Coach (Mike) Pavlansky. He sees our skillset and tries to use it to the best of our ability.”

After his senior season, Inglis is headed to the Big 12 to play for coach Matt Campbell and the Cyclones of Iowa State.

“The process came and went pretty quick,” Inglis said of his recruitment. “What set them aside is that they took me in and made me feel like a part of (the program). It was kind of the same as what I felt here in Ohio, so I felt at home.”

BOSTON MULINIX, JUNIOR, WEST BRANCH

Mulinix is unique in that he’s been able to thrive and put up significant numbers even as part of a team that leans more towards throwing the ball.

In West Branch’s pass-heavy offense, Mulinix still managed to run for 1,391 yards and 19 touchdowns during his sophomore campaign in head coach Tim Cooper’s scheme. But he can also contribute in the pass game by catching balls out of the backfield, as well. On top of his rushing numbers, he also caught 14 passes for 216 yards last year.

“It’s really fun and I can help the team both by catching the ball and by running it,” Mulinix said of playing in the Warriors’ offense. “We’re pretty pass dominant, so it’s always nice that we can have a good run game behind that too.”

However, the biggest thing that allowed West Branch’s offense to thrive as a whole last season was quarterback Dru DeShields, who is now at Kent State. With DeShields gone, the keys to the Warriors’ attack are now turned over to senior Beau Alazaus, who finally gets to show what he can do as a starting quarterback after biding his time as backup. Mulinix said the transition from DeShields to Alazaus has been smooth this offseason.

“Beau throws the ball really well, and so did Dru,” Mulinix said. “One thing that’s different is that Dru’s a little faster, so he was more (active) in the run game, but Beau can still scramble. He had three rushing touchdowns in the playoff game he came in. But the change has been really easy. (Alazaus) is really football smart — he knows what he’s doing and he throws a good ball.”

Alazaus is glad he has a playmaker like Mulinix in the backfield with him.

“(Mulinix is) a really athletic guy,” Alazaus said.

“I think he can get the ball in space and I think he can make plays for us and be great, just like our receivers can.”

Even though he’s a year younger, Mulinix now becomes the veteran in West Branch’s backfield. His play in the ground game can help provide a steadying presence for Alazaus, in order to help the Warriors open up the passing game, as well.

With DeShields’ rushing production gone as well, Mulinix could see his usage rate go up even higher this season as the team leans on him more in the run game.

But in the end, all Mulinix cares about is winning. He’ll do whatever it takes for the Warriors to end up in the “W” column.

“Our goal is just to win, so if the run game is working, we’re going to stick with it. If the pass game is working, we’ll stick with that too,” Mulinix said. “Just whatever is going to get us the win at the end.”

Catch all these Mahoning County stars during Week 1 of the 2023 high school football season on Aug. 18.

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