By Steve Williams
If Joe Hassell was a mad scientist trying to build the ultimate running back, his creation at times could be explosive and fast, and at other times powerful and swift or shifty with great vision. He might refer to it as a three-headed monster.
Hassell, however, is Central High School’s head football coach, and he has no such thing.
But he does have three running backs who combine to give him all these qualities.
And Hassell calls JaJuan Stinson, Josh Poplar and Jeremiah Howard “three of the best running backs in the area.”
Offensively, the trio will lead the way for the Bobcats, who will try to build on last season’s success this fall. Central went 6-4 in 2012 in District 3 (5A) and ended a six-year playoff drought. It seems a first-round loss to Powell just made the ‘Cats hungrier.
“Our program is rich in tradition,” said Hassell, who begins his third year at the helm. “We’re regaining some of that pride. Last season was a big step for us.
“Our expectation is to make it back to the playoffs, and once you get there, each week is a one-game season.
“I’m really optimistic about our kids and what they can do this year.”
With three top-notch running backs at his disposal, are there enough footballs to go around?
“Absolutely,” answered Hassell, smiling. “We’ll just cut one into thirds, and give them each a piece.
“Having three backs like this is a luxury now, and we hope nothing happens.”
That certainly wasn’t the case last season.
Poplar suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first preseason scrimmage.
After rushing for 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns, Stinson suffered a cracked bone in his foot in the opening series of Game 9 against Powell and was sidelined for the remainder of the season, missing the regular season finale against Halls and the playoff rematch against Powell.
Howard took over in Stinson’s absence and finished his freshman campaign with 800 yards on the ground.
Stinson’s junior campaign included a 427-yard rushing performance against Clinton, which ranks eighth all-time in TSSAA history and best ever among Knoxville prep running backs.
“When you watch film on JaJuan, the word that comes to mind is explosive,” said Coach Harrell. “He has 4.4 speed. He’s 167 pounds, all muscle.”
Poplar enters his senior year a 5-10, 215-pounder. “Josh is more of a power runner with good speed,” said Hassell. “One kid is not going to bring him down. If he gets out in the open, he’s like a train.”
Howard is almost a “combo” of Stinson and Poplar, said the coach. “The word for Jeremiah is vision. He has the ability to see things and make things happen.”
In addition to Stinson and Howard, senior receiver Rex Howard (Jeremiah’s older brother) is a returning starter on offense, along with senior guard Jonathan Holcombe and junior tackle Ethan Dane (6-2, 300).
Other projected starters on the offensive side of the ball include senior center Peyton Reed, freshman guard Isaac Buell (6-3. 225), senior tackle Scottie Reagan, sophomore quarterback Austin Kirby, junior receiver Cedric Washington and junior tight end Ray Green.
Washington, an All-State safety last year as a sophomore with six interceptions and 184 return yards, and senior tackle Dylan Skiles (5-9, 269) head up the Bobcats’ defensive unit. Rex Howard and Stinson return as starting cornerbacks and Holcombe is back at an end post.
Others expected to start defensively include sophomore tackle Alex Norris (5-9, 249), senior end Blake Lawson, junior linebacker D.J. Russell, Green and Poplar at linebacker and sophomore safety Matt Randolph.
“We’ll run a 4-3 defense,” said Hassell. “One of our strengths is running to the football – attacking the ball carrier and the ball when it’s in the air.”
Hassell’s coaching staff includes Jason West (offensive line), Scott Sexton (wide receivers), Ted Williams (running backs), Eric Turner (defensive line), Aaron Kirby (linebackers) and Roy Stone (defensive backs). Hassell (offense) and Stone (defense) are the coordinators.
Central will host Jefferson County in its season opener August 29.