SALISBURY — True freshmen are supposed to be seen and not heard, but running back David Burgess (Morganton Freedom) and receiver Carlos Tarrats (Jackonsville, Fla.) already are making noise for Catawba.
Burgess is Catawba’s leading rusher with 176 yards, and he also has 176 receiving yards. He was heavily involved in the passing game in Catawba’s surprising 25-22 SAC win at No. 10 Carson-Newman on Saturday, with seven receptions for 98 yards.
Tarrats, the SAC’s offensive player of the week as well as Catawba’s, had two touchdown catches against Carson-Newman, including the game-decider.
Burgess is on the small side at 5-foot-8, 175 pounds. That’s the only explanation for how Catawba was able to get him, much less recruit him as a preferred walk-on.
Burgess received interest but no scholarship offers from Southern Miss, Duke, N.C. State and Gardner-Webb. The only serious competition for Catawba was Mars Hill.
That’s amazing because Burgess was one of the state’s top players as a senior tailback at Freedom. The South Mountain Athletic Conference Player of the Year, he rushed for a Burke County-record 2,824 yards, scored 30 touchdowns and was the driving force for coach Mike Helms’ Patriots, who won a school-record 12 games. In a two-week span that included an epic game against Shelby, Burgess rushed for 589 yards and eight TDs.
Burgess had 691 rushing yards and seven TDs during last year’s 3A playoffs and scored all three of his team’s touchdowns in a 27-20 fourth-round loss to Concord that decided which team would represent the West in the state championship game. Burgess scored twice against the Spiders on runs and once on an interception return.
“Khris Gardin, one of our stars, played cornerback and receiver, and he was out for that Concord game,” Burgess said. “So I played cornerback and played both ways in the Concord game. It was a really tough loss.”
Burgess rushed for 4,267 yards and 49 TDs in a remarkable varsity career that he capped in the East-West All-Star Game at High Point’s Simeon Stadium. He was named team captain for the West, took a screen pass 79 yards for the longest touchdown in East-West history and was named Offensive MVP.
He hasn’t let up at Catawba, and it appears the Indians have a guy who’s going to change a lot of games for years to come.
“I came to Catawba with the goal of getting playing time,” Burgess said. “I’ve been blessed with some ability and I know what I can do, so I set some pretty high goals for myself coming here — like 600 all-purpose yards as a freshman. So far I’ve done a little better than I expected.”
It looks like Burgess will have to revise his all-purpose yardage goals upward — maybe way upward — but he’s excited to be at Catawba. Freedom assistant Sam Mackey, who has ties to Salisbury and Lexington, got Burgess a tryout with Catawba. Receivers coach Corey Ready led Catawba’s recruiting effort.
“I’m a religious person, and I believe this is where I was intended to be,” Burgess said. “I believe there’s a purpose for me being here.”
Catawba coach Curtis Walker beams when he talks about Burgess.
“The maturity he has for a freshman is the most impressive thing about him,” Walker said. “He’s done nothing but produce. He got a chance to play and he produced. He got a chance to start and he’s continued to produce.”
Like Burgess, Tarrats is a freshman with unusual maturity, confidence and skill. The Jerry-Rice-esque corner-post route he ran on his game-winning touchdown against Carson-Newman and Danny O’Brien’s accurate pass may become as much a part of Catawba football lore as defensive coordinator Keith Henry’s safety that won the 1987 Carson-Newman game 2-0.
With just over a minute left, Catawba trailed 22-19 and faced second-and-32 at the Carson-Newman 34.
“It was crunch-time, and I told Danny, ‘I’ve got this, just put it in the end zone,’” Tarrats said. “I’d run like four straight corner routes, so I knew the DB would be expecting me to run another one. I ran at him, faked to the corner and cut it back in (to the post) and I was wide open. The defender was about 4 yards behind me. I saw the ball coming, and I caught it in the end zone.”
In the first quarter, Tarrats caught the 13-yard TD pass that put Catawba on the board.
“It’s great to have a freshman wide receiver helping us execute in the passing game,” Walker said. “He’s drawing some attention, and that’s going to help our running game.”
At Raines High School in Jacksonville, Tarrats had never heard of Catawba, but Catawba assistant Jordan Smith changed that.
“I’d talked to some schools, but Catawba was the first one that really came around to see me and showed me love,” Tarrats said. “I visited, had a very good time with the team, and decided to come here.”
Tarrats was one of the National Signing Day recruits the Indians announced last February. It was a little bit of un upset that he chose football over baseball. He batted .577 as a senior outfielder/shortstop/pitcher and was his conference’s scholar-athlete of the year.
As was the case with Burgess, Catawba was able to recruit Tarrats mostly because he’s not big. He’s listed at 5-9, 170.
“I’m 5-9, but I want to play like I’m 6-2,” Tarrats said.
Coach Ready, who holds the Catawba record for receiving yards in a season with 1,043 in 2003, is a fine mentor for Tarrats.
“He’s the one who’s been working with me on the corner and the post-corner routes, and I did exactly what he taught me on Saturday,” Tarrats said. “Coach Ready said he’s the only receiver who’s had a 1,000-yard season here. I want to be the next one.”
Walker hopes it happens.
“He’s just a young guy learning the system,” Walker said. “But, again, maturity level is the key. He’s producing early in his career.”
Senior linebacker Jacob Hanes was instrumental in Catawba’s win at Carson-Newman, along with defensive player of the week Jason Taylor, another linebacker.
Hanes moved from defensive end to linebacker this year.
“He’s making that decision look pretty good,” Walker said. “He’s a great leader for our guys, and he was outstanding Saturday, fighting off cut blocks from everywhere and making big hits.”
Walker also lauded Catawba’s defensive linemen. Their work in the trenches allowed Taylor (16 tackles), safety L.J. McCray (12 tackles) and Hanes (10 tackles) to have big statistical games.
Catawba lost defensive lineman Gabe Evans to an injury, but Stephen Davis stepped in and played well.
“Winning that game Saturday was the best accomplishment we’ve had as a team since I’ve been here,” Hanes said.
Hanes said the unsung hero this week for the Indians was Phillip George, a DB transfer from Coastal Carolina.
“He was the Devo team quarterback last week,” Hanes said. “It’s very hard to simulate what Carson-Newman does, but he and the DEVO offense gave us a great look.”