Signal Mountain’s James McClellan broke a 70-yard run earlier this football season. Marion County’s Blake Zeman has the area’s top rushing performance to date with 311 yards. Ooltewah’s Desmond Pittman has a pair of 200-yard rushing games, and Polk County’s Zach Miller has gained at least 100 yards in 15 of his last 16 games.
They’re the big backs — from the lightest of the four, Zeman at 230 pounds, to McClellan at 260-plus – who power their respective offenses.
“I’d hate to be back there at safety and have to take one of these guys on,” Polk County coach Derrick Davis said. “If you have to try, you better play your best technique and you better have help.”
While Pittman shares the limelight with quarterback Brody Binder in a spread offense, the other three are centerpieces, without which their respective offenses would struggle. They have four of the area’s top five rushing games this season.
McClellan has 1,002 yards and is averaging 143.1 per game. Pittman, who sat out last week and is questionable tonight, has 956 and a 159.3 average, while Miller has 1,136 yards and a 162.3 average. The 5-foot-9 Zeman leads the group with 1,190 yards and 170 per game.
With 126 and 108 points, wing-T fullbacks Zeman and Miller are one-two in the area and 20 points better than the third-place scorer.
“It the wing-T you have to have a fullback that can handle a lot of carries and pick up the tough yards inside. It sets up everything you want to do,” Signal coach Bill Price said. “When you bring him in, most defenses think immediately that they have to stop the fullback.”
Polk opponents know in order to stop the Wildcats they have to contain the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Miller.
“We see eight and nine guys in the box all the time, and a couple of games there have been 11 within 7 yards of the line of scrimmage,” Davis said. “If we sustain our blocks that extra fraction of a second at the point of attack, though, Zach can usually break a long one.
“They make each other look good — Zach and the offensive line. Sometimes they’ll spring him with good blocking, and sometimes he makes them look good by breaking tackles.”
Zeman is, like McClellan, a true wing-T fullback— that sturdy guy who takes and delivers a pounding.
“He looks like a noseguard but he has the hips, feet, balance and vision of a running back,” Marion County coach Mac McCurry said.
Pittman is the other dimension, a 6-foot, 240-pounder with 4.6 speed in the 40-yard dash. He is the lone running back in Ooltewah’s spread offense.
“He has the great attributes of strength and size and he can explode into a [tackler],” Mac Bryan said, “but he has what a lot of big backs don’t. He has great feet and vision. He makes cuts that make him look like a 180-pound back.”
While McClellan is a converted defensive tackle and Miller and Zeman play both ways (linebacker also), Pittman has always been a pure running back, working nowhere else since his freshman season.
Like McClellan, Miller and Zeman, Pittman relishes the contact, even blowing up a defender with a devastating block.
“I run the football,” he said. “I have speed, but mostly I’m a power back. I like running between the tackles. I feel comfortable in tight spaces.”
The big backs put extra pressure on defenses and their coaches.
“You have to gang tackle and you have to tackle low. You just can’t tackle a guy in the upper body,” Price said. “We’ve had three or four concussions in practice where guys tried to tackle James high.”
Said McClellan: “I’m not going to run around many people. The first few plays I’ll hit and maybe knock somebody down, but then I might make a spin more or a juke.”
Zeman said he still gets butterflies before each game.
“I focus on what’s coming and I get excited. When I’m out there I think about being relentless, about not going down,” the 2012 all-state pick said.
There aren’t many college teams looking for fullbacks who do more than block.
As Price said of his big runner, “James is going to have a difficult time because so few teams are running an I-formation or wing-T and using a fullback. The [college] teams with one back and spread offenses usually want a speed guy back there.”
Yet power guys are at a premium.
“I don’t care whether I play Division I, II or III,” Miller said. “I just want to play.”
Contact Ward Gossett at email@example.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...