Commentary | Hey, Manatee Hurricanes, say hello to your version of 'Johnnie Football'

November 24, 2012 


Hey, Texas A&M, you are not the only school who has a "Johnny Football."

This kid spells his name "Johnnie," but to the country's No. 1 high school football team he is just as valuable as that Johnny Manziel, who has created a frenzy.

Johnnie Lang is just a freshman; not old enough to drive or vote, but on Friday night he could've been elected Mayor of Hawkins Stadium, and Joe Kinnan would've gladly run his campaign.

Instead, the Canes' legendary coach just let him run the football, which proved to be a stroke of genius.

Kinnan was down a man.

Trevon Walters, his Johnny on the Spot and top running back, was nursing an ankle injury.

So Kinnan dipped down into his rich roster of talent and grabbed a ninth-grader.

He gave young Johnnie his first start and the 5-8, 169 tailback responded with 84 yards on just nine carries while scoring two touchdowns to provide a lot of

fuel in Manatee's 56-7 region semifinal victory over Venice on Friday night.

"I was very nervous, but at the same time confident and just went with the flow," Lang said. "I knew I was filling some big shoes, but then with rep after rep I was getting snappy and feeling good. I feel like I accomplished some good things tonight."

The Venice defense will vouch for that. He burned the Indians with his touchdowns at crucial times in the first half giving the Canes a 14-0 lead with a nine-yard run and then broke loose for 14 yards to push the score to 28-0.

"He has incredible talent for a freshman. Most people his age don't have that burst of speed and he is not there yet, but he is close," Manatee assistant coach Chris Conboy said.

Lang is a football pedigree. His uncle, Steve Gaskin, is one of the top runners in Manatee history with 1,900 plus yards rushing.

This "Johnnie Football" said he grew up on Manatee High football and two of his biggest heroes are Mike Blakely and Ben Axon.

"I want to be better than them," said the shy Lang, who was allowing his emotions to run a little rampant after the biggest night of his football career that is still in the cradle.

"Hopefully Trevon will be back next week to carry the load. They need him," Lang said. "When the season started I never thought I would be on the varsity, playing in a playoff game and then starting. I was also playing special teams. I got a little tired, but you get the momentum and that keeps you going."

Lang was one of several unsung heroes who created a night to remember on the season's last game at Hawkins Stadium.

There were more than a few Canes masquerading as "Johnnie Football" on this night.

The defense was pushed around when Manatee beat Venice earlier in the season and gave up 29 points, picked off two passes and scored on two fumble recoveries.

John McElfresh, the Canes unheralded linebacker, made a special memory for himself when he picked up a fumble and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown.

"We are a lot better team than we were that night. We watched tons of film on that game and fixed all the things we did wrong the first time we played Venice," McElfresh said. "On the fumble we were on a blitz call and I went. The quarterback got the snap from the center and the ball popped up. I picked it off and took off. I was just praying that I wouldn't get caught."

Marquis Dawsey returned the other fumble for a touchdown, taking it 20 yards. He is another one of those unsung guys whom colleges say doesn't have the right size to play the defensive line.

"We felt like we owed the offense one after the first Venice game. They carried us the last time," Dawsey said.

The happiest guy on the field after the game might have been Manatee defensive line coach Steve Gulash. Football games are won in the trenches and his front four put up a granite wall.

"Those guys up front are playing at a level that they left off last year, which is a great time to do it," Gulash said. "It's one and done now and everyone is focused. A lot of people say McElfresh is an overachieving kid. But he is not. He has a lot of desire and that can get you more than size can. Dawsey is too good not to play in college."

It was a night for "Johnnie Football."

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 1221. Follow him on Twitter at @ADellSports.

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