Prep Football Hero: North’s Jaleel Webster
By Mike London
SPENCER — North Rowan running back Jaleel Webster was a few seconds away from a well-deserved interview in a hallway outside the film room when head coach Ben Hampton whispered final words of instruction.
“Be humble,” Hampton reminded the 5-foot-7, 165-pound back. “Make sure to thank the big guys up front.”
Hampton was a fine running back himself, setting county and school records in his heyday at West Rowan 15 years ago, so he knows the importance of keeping the big guys happy. Running backs can make an occasional great play on their own, but they don’t have fabulous nights without consistent blocking.
Webster rushed for a school-record 290 yards in Friday’s 20-14 Central Carolina Conference win against Lexington. That’s a fabulous night, so it’s safe to say that his blockers, the big guys and the receivers, performed admirably.
“I can’t do anything without those guys,” Webster said. “The offensive line — they did what they had to do against Lexington.”
North (5-2) was 2-5 at this point last year, even with a stout defense. The single biggest reason for that dramatic improvement is an offensive line manned by guards Taelor Davis, Josh Boger and Steven Thurston, center Will Anthony and tackles Terry Cathcart and Bryson Deal.
North presents problems for opposing defenses with a balanced offense. North leads Rowan County in rushing yards per game and is second (to West Rowan) in passing yards per game.
North had beaten West Stokes the previous week by throwing for 191 yards and two TDs. Lexington was well aware of that, and the Yellow Jackets’ gameplan against North was to eliminate the pass. North was held to 40 passing yards.
“Lexington did a really good job of taking a lot of our passing game away,” Hampton said. “But that meant only having five or six defenders in the box, so we turned to our big boys up front and we turned to our running backs to carry the load.”
Webster, a junior, is the chairman of a committee of North backs that also includes Jayden Jones and Jaden Perry. It didn’t take him long to figure out he might have a good night. On North’s first snap, he bolted 65 yards for a touchdown.
“That was a just a simple downhill run, but the o-line blocked it, I saw a lane, and I took it,” Webster said.
By halftime, Webster was approaching his career high. He had 111 yards at the break. His previous personal best was 120 yards against Carson back in August.
Webster got a career-high 19 carries on Friday, mostly because he was producing, but also because Perry went down when he was hit on the knee by a helmet.
In the second half, Webster had 13 carries and churned for 169 yards. His carries included a 71-yard dash.
“We were throwing everything we had at them — inside zone, trap, counter,” Hampton said. “If it’s not broke, you don’t try to fix it, and Jaleel had the hot hand. We stayed with him.”
While Webster finished with 290 yards to break the school record set of 272 by JaReke Chambers in 2012 against West Montgomery, he could’ve gained more.
It was a strange night. North had 165 yards in penalties, so there were times when Webster gained yards, North got penalized, and Webster had to regain that same real estate.
“I had one very big carry called back,” Webster said. “We made some mistakes, we had some penalties, but then we’d make up for it with good teamwork.”
Webster is honored to break a record set by Chambers because he got to watch Chambers run to daylight from 2012-2014. That 272-yard game came in the last outing of Chambers’ sophomore year — a loss in the 1A state playoffs. Chambers topped 1,000 yards three straight years — he’s the only Cavalier to do that — and put together an epic season as a junior in 2013 when he rambled for 2,018 yards.
“I saw a lot of JaReke’s great games, especially when I was in eighth grade and he was a junior,” Webster said. “I’d like for colleges to look at me and I’d like to get some good games on film, but I didn’t do this for myself. I was just trying to help win the ballgame.”
This was the 16th 200-yard rushing game by a North back. The school has been competing in football since 1959. Chambers had four 200-yard nights. 1970s superstars Mark Sturgis and Jimmy Heggins accounted for three each. Nathanial Hyde, who helped North get to a state-title game in 1992, had two. Kenny Stoner, Kenny Brown and Eric Perry erupted for one magical game apiece.
Webster got his first opportunities on the North varsity as a sophomore last season. For the season, he rushed 97 times for 348 yards and five TDs. He was North’s No. 2 rusher.
Webster’s favorite NFL back is Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch. He wears the “24” jersey because Lynch does. Lynch’s nickname is “Beast Mode,” and Webster is sometimes referred to as “Baby Beast Mode” by teammates.
After an offseason of had work that made him both bigger and faster, Webster has shown signs of being beastly. He’s had four games with 90 or more rushing yards so far this season. He’s caught seven passes and he also ran a kickoff back for a touchdown against Statesville. He currently ranks third in the county behind two senior stars — East’s Max Wall and West’s Jovon Quarles — in rushing yards per game.
“I’ve seen a lot of outstanding backs in the county in the last dozen or so years,” Hampton said. “You’ve got guys like (West’s) K.P. Parks and Wade Moore, who ran with brute force, and you’ve got guys like Chambers and (Carson’s) Shaun Warren, who had a little more wiggle, guys who relied on cuts and speed. It’s not fair to compare backs because every runner has his own style, but I think Jaleel brings a good blend of power and speed. He’s also small in stature, so there’s not a lot of surface area for defenders to hit.”
Hampton was pleasantly shocked when he saw Webster’s rushing total following the game.
Something as special as 290 yards may not happen for Webster again, but that will depend on how teams attempt to defend the Cavaliers.
“Spread football is the ballgame now,” Hampton said. “You spread it to try to get as many defenders as possible out of the box, and then you can run it. The thing is, if you don’t have threats at quarterback and receiver, the defense can still stack the box. Fortunately, we do have some threats in the passing game, and that could lead to more rushing games like we had Friday.”
North also has those big guys upfront. It starts with them.
“They had their best game as an o-line on Friday,” Hampton said. There’s no doubt about it.”
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