by Evin Demirel
Posted 7/16/2012 12:00 am
On a national scale, Arkansas high school football has always hit above its weight. And for nearly a century, the state’s best punch has been its running backs.
Consider that in 1925, Pine Bluff High School churned out 8,588 yards, a single-season national record that lasted for 73 years. More than 8,000 of those yards were on the ground.
In more recent decades, individuals have also stood out. In 1964, Parade magazine selected running back Bobby Kinkaid of Little Rock Hall to its All-American team. Of the next 30 Arkansans selected to the same team, 11 played running back.
Try North Little Rock senior Altee Tenpenny, who missed last season with an ankle injury, but has already been touted as the next in a long line of great tailbacks from central Arkansas. Tenpenny was committed to defending national champion Alabama as of press time.
We don’t know if Tenpenny will put up good enough numbers to stamp himself as an all-time great. But, for consideration, we do know who he’s competing with.
Top 10 Running Backs in Arkansas High School History:
DeAngelo Williams (5-foot-10, 217 pounds)
Wynne, Class of 2002
High school highlights: 2001 — 2,204 yards, 34 touchdowns, 10.4 yards per carry; 2000 — 1,044 yards,14 touchdowns.
College Choice: University of Memphis
Williams’ greatest asset was his shiftiness. His sophomore year was derailed by a severe foot injury, but by playoff time of his senior season Williams was never better. He racked up 939 yards and 14 touchdowns in four games while helping deliver a state title.In 2002, Williams chose nearby Memphis over the likes of Arkansas and Ole Miss. He left four years later with 6,026 rushing yards, fourth all-time in NCAA history.
In six years with the Carolina Panthers, Williams has put together the most successful NFL rushing career of any running back who graduated an Arkansas high school. With four more carries, he will join Jim Brown as the only NFL players to average at least 5 yards per carry on 1,000 career attempts.
Darren McFadden (6-2, 210)
Pulaski Oak Grove, Class of 2005
High school highlights: 2003 — 2,027 yards, 19 touchdowns, 9.9 yards per carry; career — 4,871 yards, 59 touchdowns, 9.8 yards per carry.
College Choice: Arkansas
With a few healthy seasons, McFadden could also etch his name in the NFL record books. Despite his lack of durability for the Oakland Raiders, many still consider him the greatest running back in Arkansas history.
By now, the accolades are nearly lore: two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up, two-time Doak Walker Award winner and one of only two SEC running backs to run for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first three college seasons.
Nearly a third of McFadden's school-record 1,830 rushing yards during his junior season came after initial contact. He never stopped showing the same desire to punish he’d flashed as a hard-hitting safety at Pulaski Oak Grove.
McFadden’s senior team lost 31-7 to Alma in the quarterfinals of the Class 4A state playoffs.
Peyton Hillis (6-2, 250)
Conway High School, Class of 2004
High school highlights: 2003 — 2,631 yards, 29 touchdowns, 10.1 yards per carry.
College Choice: Arkansas
Hillis had a more dominant prep career on offense than McFadden. As a junior, the future sixth round draft pick racked up 1,427 yards and 17 touchdowns. Then he posted a senior season that included nine carries of 55 yards or more and a run to the state 5A semifinals, where Conway lost 28-27 to West Memphis.
In college, Hillis took a backseat to McFadden and Felix Jones in terms of rush attempts. Although his contributions didn’t headline the box scores, they were no less important. His 52 knockdown blocks in 2007, for instance, paved the way for a school record 3,725 rushing yards. Hillis’ versatility was showcased with 151 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns in a 2007 upset of eventual national champion LSU.
Michael Dyer (5-9, 215)
Little Rock Christian, Class of 2009
High school highlights: 2007 —2,710 yards, 28 touchdowns, 9.7 yards per carry; career – 8,097 yards, 84 touchdowns, 8.4 yards per carry.
College Choice: Auburn/Arkansas State
The numbers speak for themselves. Dyer stands No. 1 in career rushing yards in the Arkansas Activities Association record book. His sophomore season still ranks sixth among the best individual seasons in state history. That year, Greenwood beat Little Rock Christian 27-6 in the 5A state final.
At Auburn, Dyer set a freshman rushing mark with 950 yards and an MVP award in the national title game. He was a two-time all-SEC pick with the Tigers.
It’s been rough waters since then, with Dyer suspended for Auburn’s last bowl game and revelations that he smoked synthetic marijuana in college. He transferred to Arkansas State, where his future appears to be at a crossroads.
A more mature Dyer could help lift the Red Wolves to unprecedented heights.
Jonathan Adams (6-0, 219)
Osceola, Class of 1998
High school highlights: 1997 — 2,227 yards, 38 touchdowns; career — 6,714 yards, 88 touchdowns, 9.2 yards per carry.
College Choice: Arkansas State
Before Dyer, Adams was the most heralded running back in Arkansas State history. He led Osceola to three consecutive title games with his most gutsy effort coming last. On a sore right ankle, Adams ran for 131 yards in a 28-27 victory against McGehee for the 2A state championship.
By winter 1997, many major programs including Alabama and Arkansas wanted Adams, then the state’s all-time leading rusher. But ASU was only an hour drive away from home and was easier to get into than some of Adams’ other options.
Adams was never as dominant in college as he was in high school, but averaged 4.5 yards per carry while scoring 17 touchdowns in four seasons. His 3,005 career rushing yards rank fourth in Arkansas State history.
Basil Shabazz (6-0, 190)
Pine Bluff, Class of 1991
High school highlights: 1990 — 1,596 yards, 28 touchdowns, 7.6 yards per carry.
College Choice: Played professional baseball, then UAPB
These days, the question “What if?” seems to be entangled in so much of Shabazz’s legacy.What if he could have played college football immediately after high school instead of choosing (and struggling through) pro baseball? What if, along that path, he hadn’t been caught with a handgun and marijuana while visiting friends at UCA?
Instead of dwelling on what Shabazz wasn’t, let’s look at what he was: the greatest athlete in Arkansas prep history. And of the four sports he seemed to effortlessly dominate, football was where his potential most tantalized.A year after rushing for 782 yards, all the pieces seemed to come together Shabazz’s senior season. He blended the record-shattering track speed, the field awareness and the power, saving his best for the 4A state final against Texarkana, which entered 13-0 while allowing 4.2 points per game. Shabazz rushed for 171 yards and five touchdowns on 20 carries, throwing in a 77-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Wadie Moore, who covered prep sports for decades for the Arkansas Gazette, said Shabazz’s elusiveness made him the best running back he ever covered.
Jerry Eckwood (6-0, 200 pounds)
Brinkley, Class of 1974
High school highlights: 1973 — 2,616 yards, 33 touchdowns, 10 yards per carry; career — 5,215 yards and 67 touchdowns.
College choice: Arkansas
Eckwood was likely the first blue chip recruit to command the attention of the entire state of Arkansas. Moore, the longtime Gazette sportswriter, said Eckwood was the second-best Arkansas prep running back he covered.
Part of Eckwood’s success came from his love of lifting weights, a far cry from Shabazz, who relied on natural strength, Moore said. Eckwood led his senior team to the 2A state finals, where it lost to Morrilton 16-6.
Injuries hurt Eckwood’s career at Arkansas. A back injury sidelined him as a freshman, but he bounced back as a sophomore. For a five-game, early-season stretch with the Razorbacks, Eckwood ran for 727 yards and averaged 9.2 yards per carry. But he severely injured his knee soon afterward and would not regain his elite speed again as a Razorback.
Cedric Cobbs (6-0, 225 pounds)
Little Rock Fair, Class of 1999
High school highlights: 1998 — 2,043 yards, 15 touchdowns, 13 yards per carry; career — 4,631 yards, 43 touchdowns, 10.5 yards per carry
College Choice: Arkansas
In some ways, Cobbs’ career echoes Eckwood’s, with less success at the pro level but more in high school and college.Cobbs set a record for per-carry average at the state’s highest classification that may never fall. He also helped Fair beat Cabot 41-0 for the state title.
At Arkansas, Cobbs delivered on high expectations with a freshman single-season rushing record. Cobbs was described by ESPN: The Magazine as “ “the most dynamic running back to hit the SEC since Bo Jackson.” But, similar to Eckwood, injuries soon derailed things: a severe shoulder separation in 2000, a pulled hamstring and strained back in 2001 and a sprained toe a year later.Cobbs finished his college career with an All-SEC performance and stands as the Hogs’ fourth all-time leading rusher.
Jim Pace (6-0, 194 pounds)
Dunbar High, Class of 1954
High school highlights: Comprehensive statistics, if recorded, have been lost for many all-black schools of the pre-integration era.
College choice: Michigan
Cobbs first made a name for himself at Dunbar Junior High, the same site where 40 years earlier Jim Pace became one of the most celebrated black athletes of the pre-integration era.
As a left halfback, Pace scored 17 touchdowns as a sophomore, 20 as a junior and 25 as a senior. Although he wanted to be a Razorback, he knew joining an all-white southern team was out of the question. So he opted for Michigan, where he lived a couple years while in junior high, and Little Rock public schools athletic director Earl Quigley got the Wolverines in touch with him.
Pace was a starter by his junior year and led Michigan in rushing his final two seasons. He won a Big Ten indoor sprint title and was selected as an All-American. Pace became a hero in Little Rock’s black community and in December 1957, was greeted at Little Rock’s Adams Field by 1,500 supporters.
Bruce Fullerton (6-1, 185 pounds)
Little Rock Central, Class of 1958
High school highlights: 1957 — over 1,000 yards, 27 touchdowns.
College choice: Arkansas
Fullerton was the most decorated player during the most dominant stretch of pre-integration prep Arkansas football. His magnum opus of a senior year capped a run of six straight seasons in which the Tigers didn’t lose to an in-state opponent.
As a junior and senior, Fullerton’s Tigers went undefeated, beating top teams from Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas. The National Sports News Service voted Central as the nation’s No. 1 team, and The Sporting News named Fullerton its national player of the year.Fullerton’s combination of size, strength and speed was extremely rare, considering he weighed as much as the average starting Central offensive lineman. Many football players from past eras would have had trouble keeping up with today’s faster, bigger athletes, but not Fullerton and Pace.