Baton Rouge boasts bevy of standout running backs

“A runner must understand that there’s one bad thing about carrying that football: It attracts a crowd,” McKay once told reporters.

In 2013, a talented high school running back can attract as many recruiters as would-be tacklers. And that’s a good thing.

So what would happen if a diversely talented group of running backs came together for one season?

Baton Rouge fans won’t have to wait long to find out.

At least that’s what awaits three seniors: Scotlandville’s Dontrell Hilliard, East Feliciana’s Kameron McKnight and East Ascension’s Sione Palelei. Throw in two talented juniors — Catholic High’s Derrius Guice and University’s Nick Brossette — and the potential for this season is practically unlimited.

“You’ve got a group of runners who are all physically different, and their styles aren’t close to being the same,” regional analyst Jason Howell said. “Collectively, it would be hard to go to another area and find this many backs who are this good.”

Palelei has never had a 1,000-yard rushing season, but he is perhaps the best known because he committed to LSU last month. McKnight also hasn’t had a 1,000-yard season and is projected as a defensive player by some colleges. Hilliard is seeking his third straight 1,000-yard season.

Brossette was an All-Metro MVP last fall and already has had three 1,000-yard seasons. Guice takes over as a full-time starter this fall after tallying 836 yards while sharing carries in what was his varsity debut.

“I’ve been around high school football for a long time, and I’ve coached and watched some great ones,” Central High coach Sid Edwards said. “But I don’t think we’ve ever had a group like this before.”

A running tradition

Baton Rouge has had its fair share of top runners.

Before he won the Heisman trophy as an LSU star, Billy Cannon starred for Istrouma High in the 1950s. Jimmy Taylor starred for Baton Rouge High, LSU and the Green Bay Packers.

A list of more recent stars includes Catholic High’s Kevin Franklin (a Parade All-American), the Bears’ option quarterback Warrick Dunn (Florida State and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Travis Minor (Florida State and the NFL).

Dutchtown High’s Eddie Lacy starred at Alabama last year and now is with the Green Bay Packers. Ex-Redemptorist running back Jeremy Hill was LSU’s top rusher last year and followed in the RHS footsteps of Shelton Sampson (Northwestern) and Jay Lucas (Southeastern Louisiana). Another former Dutchtown star, Landon Collins, is a standout defensive player at Alabama.

This year’s class of runners includes some other notables, such as Dutchtown’s Torrance Mosley, an Arkansas commitment who may play wide receiver in college. University High freshman phenom Dylan Moses will start at linebacker but may get some reps in the backfield.

Young and relentless I

It is easy to see why Brossette is labeled as a power back. At 6-foot and 215 pounds, he doesn’t mind running between the tackles.

As a sophomore, Brossette showed there was more to his game by breaking a series of long runs, including a 75-yarder in the Cubs’ semifinal loss to Evangel Christian.

“I like to run the ball and go through people,” he said. “I’ve learned to read my blocks better and take it outside when there’s an opening. Catching the ball is another way to gain yards.”

Alabama, LSU, Florida, Notre Dame and Texas A&M have offered scholarships to Brossette, The Advocate’s All-Metro Offensive MVP for 3A and below. He ran for 2,118 yards and 44 touchdowns.

“Nick has always been a good chain-mover who can get those tough yards,” coach Chad Mahaffey said. “He’s more explosive than people think and, as he’s gotten older, he’s learned when and where he can hit the hole and go for a big play.”

Young and relentless II

On his third varsity carry, Guice didn’t move a mountain, but it looked like he did.

Then smaller than his current 5-10, 208 pounds, Guice ran into the Denham Springs line for what appeared to be a short gain. Then the pile of linemen, some weighing close to 300 pounds, rolled 10 yards down the field. On the next play, Guice scored on a 52-yard run.

Guice is recovering from surgery to remove calcium deposits from one of his arms and isn’t participating in contact drills. He already has an offer from LSU and is anxious to show what he can do after tallying 836 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.

“I’m hard on myself, and I set my goals high,” Guice said. “Last year I got close to 1,000 yards and didn’t have 100 carries. If I double my carries, the yards I get should double.”

Catholic coach Dale Weiner said Guice’s running style is similar to that of Minor, an elite track sprinter. Guice is bigger and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.36.

“He’s most like Travis, but the good ones are always unique,” Weiner said. “Derrius has those qualities. As he grows and matures, I think you’ll see him do more things.”

Steady and ready

Hilliard (6-0, 185) ran for more than 1,000 yards for Scotlandville the year before current coach Eric Randall came to the school. Randall was skeptical until the Hornets held their first 7-on-7 last summer.

“ ‘Deceptive’ is the word I’d use to describe him,” Randall said. “There are times when it looks like he isn’t going that fast, and then he runs away from people.

“In our first 7-on-7 last year, there was a ball thrown behind him. Some guys would give up on it. He leaped up and grabbed the ball with one hand. I knew then we had something special.”

Hilliard runs the 40 between 4.5 and 4.6 seconds and ran for 1,191 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior. Randall called what Hilliard has “football speed.”

He has offers from Oklahoma State, Tulane, Missouri and Minnesota.

“I’ve been working on my speed and on getting stronger,” Hilliard said. “The 7-on-7s were good; I got to work on the technique for catching the ball.”

Central’s Edwards said Hilliard reminds him of Franklin, who starred at Catholic, then went on to play at LSU and Southern.

Pace changer

McKnight (6-2, 215) is the tallest of the group and is called “rangy” by Howell.

“Some people see him playing another position in college — maybe linebacker or receiver,” Howell said. “He probably runs a bit too upright, which sends up warning signals. But it works for him.”

As a junior, McKnight gained 900 yards while playing in the shadow of LSU freshman Kendell Beckwith. McKnight’s scholarship offers cover a broad range from Tulane, Louisiana Tech and other state schools to Notre Dame and Mississippi State.

“I like playing running back, but I like defense, too,” he said. “I’ll be doing both again this year.”

An injury kept McKnight out of last year’s semifinal loss to Notre Dame-Crowley, but he played a key role in a quarterfinal win over Farmerville. Afterward, coaches learned he played the fourth quarter with a broken collarbone.

“He’s physically tough,” East Feliciana coach Cedric Anderson said. “He’s not as fast as the track guys, but he is faster than you think. And he has that knack for making people miss.”

Mr. Versatility

Some think Palelei’s marquee moment was running a 4.4 in the 40 at this summer’s LSU camp.

That’s not the moment Palelei (5-10, 196) remembers.

“There was a play against Mandeville last year,” he said. “It was a short pass, and I went 67 yards for a touchdown. There’s something about scoring touchdowns and making plays to help the team.”

Palelei said he wasn’t sold on playing running back until he moved to Gonzales from Utah as a middle-school student. That’s when he fell in love with scoring touchdowns to help his team.

As a junior, Palelei ran for 828 yards and 13 TDs to go with 283 receiving yards and three more TDs. He is expected to have an even bigger role.

“Palelei is not one of those guys who is real big,” Howell said. “But he’s versatile enough to run it or to catch a pass and make plays. You see those guys at just about every college.”

EAHS coach Paul Bourgeois said he expects Palelei’s role to expand as the Spartans look to challenge Catholic and Guice this fall.

“We feel like we have a good one, and I know Catholic has one, too,” Bourgeois said. “There’s definitely a good group of running backs.”