Manatee High entered this season with enviable talent and depth at running back.
Sophomore Kyree Jones returned after leading the Hurricanes with 648 rushing yards last season, and seniors Napoleon Harris and Tyson Phelps brought experience.
But then injuries decimated the Hurricanes’ backfield.
A knee injury ended Jones’ year in preseason camp, and Phelps and Harris battled their own injuries. The Hurricanes didn’t rush for a touchdown in their first two games, didn’t receive a rushing touchdown from a running back until their fifth and averaged just 84 rushing yards per game over their first five games, which included 2 rushing yards in their season opener against Lakeland.
“It was a whole lot of unsettled,” Hurricanes head coach Yusuf Shakir said. “That was supposed to be our bread and butter going into the year, especially when you’ve got an inexperienced quarterback. You want to feed the ball as much as possible and not have to make him make that many decisions. We just had to grow up. Everybody had to step up.”
Now, Harris and Phelps are healthy and delivering for the Hurricanes (7-4).
They each scored a touchdown in the third-seeded Hurricanes’ 35-7 Class 7A-Region 3 quarterfinal win against sixth-seeded Largo Pinellas Park (6-5) on Friday night.
The Hurricanes advanced to the 7A-3 semifinals and will play Friday at second-seeded New Port Richey Mitchell (10-1), which lost 29-19 to Pinellas Park on Sept. 13.
Harris finished with nine carries for 82 yards, and Phelps added nine rushes for 47 yards. The former evened the score against Pinellas Park at 7 just one minute after the Patriots had taken a 7-0 lead, and the latter minutes later gave the Hurricanes a lead they wouldn’t lose.
“(They bring) the maturity and just knowing what to do in situations,” Shakir said. “They bring a calmness to our offense, so our quarterback doesn’t feel like he has to do everything.”
The two complement each other, having developed together over their four seasons.
“We played a lot since freshman year, so we’ve got chemistry,” Harris said. “It’s just back and forth, 1-2 punch.”
If the Hurricanes needed a reminder on Friday night of how important having a well-rounded running game is, they could’ve looked across the field on Friday night.
Pinellas Park senior Lawrance Toafili rushed for 1,429 yards and 17 touchdowns in the regular season. Considering the Patriots attempted just 69 passes and didn’t have another running back rush for more than 481 yards, it’s fair to say that Toafili carried his team to the playoffs.
But the four-star recruit and Florida State commit was limited on Friday night, rushing 19 times for 84 yards, a slow night considering he surpassed 200 yards four times this year. With their star player struggling, the Patriots gained just 205 yards.
The Hurricanes are advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the third time in four seasons behind their multi-headed backfield. And Harris is confident of what he, Phelps and the rest of the Hurricanes’ stable of running backs can provide going forward.
“A lot,” Harris said. “A lot. Because we’re all talented in different ways.”