STERLING – Competition in camp is customary this time of year, especially position battles. Starting jobs are on the line.
However, when asked who the best running back on the team is, Sterling’s Marquez Williams, Jayden Villegas and Negil Bruce all pointed to the Golden Warriors’ top rusher in 2016: Nyrel Sullivan.
Sullivan may be the star of the group, but the Warriors have a stable full of backs that each bring something a little different to the table.
“One of us subs off and another comes from the sidelines,” Villegas said. “That way we’re never tired, we’re always fresh. We all get a bunch of reps.”
“We’re fortunate to have bodies, so if one guy gets tired, we can sub another guy right in,” Williams said. “We can still be just as effective.”
Sullivan rushed for 915 yards and scored 19 touchdowns on just 104 carries last season in his junior campaign, after running for 762 yards and 11 TDs as a sophomore for Dixon. He’s looking to boost his total to 1,500 yards this season, and wants the running backs to accumulate 3,000 yards as a group.
“We have to run the ball first in our league,” Sterling head coach Jon Schlemmer said. “We have to establish it. We have guys on the outside and a good quarterback, but if we can’t run the ball in our league and in 5A, we’re not going to win.”
The Golden Warriors will run the same scheme offensively, with the run setting up the pass. Four running backs and a slew of options at wideout gives offensive coordinator Shad Bailey a good problem to have in spreading the wealth.
“We’re an all-around team. We have a ton of weapons all over the field,” Sullivan said. “Teams can’t focus just on our run game. We can pass it, too.”
The running back position isn’t a worry in the slightest for Sterling, but they will have to replace key contributors Andrew Spaulding and Latrell Vaughn. Spaulding carried the ball a team-high 127 times in 2016 for 603 yards and 10 touchdowns. Vaughn rushed 95 times for 783 yards and 11 total touchdowns.
Each of the backs has the speed to do what Vaughn did, but will have to develop a physical style as well to ease the loss of Spaulding.
“These guys all have the ability to run between the tackles,” Schlemmer said. “We’re not just going to push it to the perimeter all the time. There’s going to be times where they’ll need to put their nose down and get 2 yards.”
“Spaulding was a good straightforward runner, and it’s going to be hard to replace his strength,” Sullivan said. “We’re good running backs, but we don’t have the same style as him.”
What will aid the running game more than anything is the guys blocking for them. Sterling returns four starters up front, and Schlemmer noted four other linemen are making a case for some major playing time. The competition up front will only benefit the backfield and senior quarterback Trey Morse.
“I trust our coaches to get them [linemen] to where they need to be,” Sullivan said. “That way the holes are already there. We’re dealing with some linebackers and guys in the secondary, because we know our guys [up front] will take care of the rest.”
Morse will also be a threat to run, as he accumulated 747 yards and seven touchdowns on 107 attempts. Those stats, combined with a 65 percent completion percentage, 1,178 yards and 16 touchdowns through the air for the 3-year starter, give Morse plenty of ways to break down opposing defenses.
“He’s going to do what we ask him to do,” Schlemmer said. “Last year, we kind of asked him to manage the game. But we’re going to put some more things on his shoulders this year. We’re not going to run him 30 times a game because we have those other four, but if we ask him to run, he’s very capable.”
All personal goals aside, the Warriors’ team goal this season is clear.
“Beat Sycamore,” Bruce said.
Avenging their bitter 2016 quarterfinal defeat in Week 1 could go a long way toward the program reaching new heights.