Ask Pierce's Eric Koehlmoos about Justin Small. Eric ranks as one of our top 12 players in the state for 2009, and he doesn't necessarily like the idea of having to run into this guy or even worse, having him run into you for an entire game. At 6-2 and close to 230 pounds, I can see why. But it doesn't hurt that Justin Small's style is obviously built around him using his size and sheer will to his advantage.
"There's no feeling like it., just running people over and getting yards when they know exactly what you are going to do," Justin said.
Small cited one prime example this last season, which saw him rush for approximately 800 yards and most of them came with people hanging on his back. It was Adam Central, and the scenario was that St. Cecilia had the ball, the lead and there was only a few minutes left in the game.
What do you do?
Give it to the running back, of course. But the problem is, when everyone knows what's going to happen, it's hard for a team to actually get it done. That wasn't the case for Small and his offensive line, including fellow member of this year's Dirty Dozen, 6-6, 275 pound Matt Sterup.
Central knew darn well what they were going to do, and according to Small, they were ready for it, lined up to stop it and even then, it was four yards, a cloud of dust and that's the game.
"It was "35 ISO, 35 ISO", just over and over," Small said. "They had like 10 guys in the box, all diving to stop us, but they couldn't. It doesn't get any better than that when everyone on the field and in the stands knows what you are going to do and they still can't stop you."
Small wasn't a slouch on defense, because, as you know, most kids from schools this size (Class C), you usually play at least two positions for your team. For Small, it was linebacker and even a little bit of nose guard duty when they team was going with the "50"-Defense.
Point of fact, regardless of Small's almost eight yards per carry as a running back, he said every school but one is looking at him to play the defensive side of the ball. " Iowa State is the only one looking at me to play in the backfield," Small said. "But every other school is talking to me as a linebacker."
That's not a bad early list of potential suitors, but Small is looking to turn interest into something a little more real in terms of offers. To that end, aside from his usual workmen-like approach to the game, Small said that he'll be attending the Nebraska camp and possibly Iowa , Kansas and Baylor as well. Justin said he would probably be going to a Nike Combine in late-March.
But when it comes to position, Small doesn't necessarily look at the impressive offensive stats or even his defensive stats, which Small said ended up being around 80 tackles, including around six sacks. He said it's just about what he enjoys about the game. "I don't really care what position I play. I mean, I got really comfortable with running back this last season, because I did it so much," he said. "But my game, whichever side of the ball, is just about being physical.
"I don't think on offense, any one should ever stand me up. It would be embarrassing for me if that ever happened. And on defense, I am the same way. If it's just me and them, I think I should win that battle every time."
Part of Small's aspirations are for a future at Division 1-A, but like most in the state, he has an idea of where he'd like that to be. Growing up he saw red and with the new staff taking over, perhaps it makes local kids see more red than they ever have before. It is certainly that way for Small.
"Even back in 2003 I always liked coach Pelini. You could tell that this was a guy who got up every morning and just loved what he did," he said. "But at junior days, afterward when we were sitting behind him during the basketball game, he was really friendly and just a down-to-earth guy.
"He's a great coach and as a defensive player, who wouldn't want to play for him?"
Justin even went so far as to cite one particular example of a player under Pelini, who perhaps didn't have the numbers, physically, but ended up being a force for their team. Linebacker Ali Highsmith ranked as one of LSU's most lethal defensive weapons last season, tying for the team-lead in tackles with 101. That included nine tackles for loss and three sacks. But during the NFL Combine just this last week, the standout college star was a super disappointment, running a remarkably slow 5.0 in the 40.
Small isn't using Highsmith as an example of how overrated some numbers can be. He chooses to look at it as how Bo Pelini can turn average measurables into something great. "Look at what he did and you heard about him all the time. And those numbers in the combine said he wasn't that good," Small said. "But at LSU he was great. I know I can run faster than a 5.0, so you just imagine what they guy can do for anyone to make them the best player they can be."
Recruiting is obviously a little on Justin's mind as he ponders which camps he'll attend and what parts of his game he would like most to improve. But even with the junior year of high school hardly a distant memory, he's thinking about his final season of prep football. He'll be an anchor in the backfield, but if size matters, Koehlmoos could be repeating his comments from this year, because Small isn't the only non-small player in the backfield for 2008. "We have a quarterback coming in, who I think is 6-3 and around 220, and our fullback and wingback both go about 220 to 225, too," Small said. " I am around 230, and I think our offensive line is going to be even better this time around than it was this last season. So, I think things are looking good for us this year."
It should be considered not ironic then that when Small thinks about this year, both football he'll play and the football he hopes to play in the future, he goes about it in the same gridiron-like style that he approaches actually playing the game. He doesn't know what that will ultimately mean, but based on the early attention from a good number of schools, that mentality could pay big dividends down the road. "If you are in my way, I'm just going to lower my head and go at you. That's the way I approach it," Small said of his style. "I think being physical is the biggest part of the game, but you have to be smart, too.
"I plan on working on my feet a little more this year, along with just my quickness laterally, but I feel really good about our team and how I think we'll do. I think we are going to be one of the more physical teams you'll see."
Make sure to keep up with Big Red Report as we keep up with Small and we chronicle his senior year and the recruiting attention which will undoubtedly accompany it, probably from start to finish.
Small reports a 3.0 GPA