In August, the competition to play running back at Hylton High School was as crowded as the stage for the early rounds of “American Idol.” Plenty of people had talent, but not everyone possessed that special something.
New Bulldog coach Lou Sorrentino tried his best to find a place for all who auditioned, which helps explain why four defensive starters may be running backs at heart. That speed and willingness to take (or give) a hit has translated into a unit headed for a state-championship game.
“In preseason practice we had about 20 running backs,” junior all-Northwest Region linebacker James Parker said Wednesday. “There were a lot of good backs, but some were good at other positions, too. [Cornerback] Deon Butler played halfback last season before he went up to the varsity; [linebacker] Endor Cooper has played the position; [free safety/quarterback] Jeff Overton is like a running back.”
Saturday, the Bulldogs (12-1) will meet Oakton (10-3) in the Group AAA, Division 6 final at the University of Richmond Stadium. Hylton has allowed just 56 points all season.
The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Parker likely will get a longer look in the offensive backfield next season, but he’s one of seven running backs who had at least one carry last week. In a 22-8 state semifinal victory over Thomas Dale, Parker gained 41 yards on just three carries.
Defensively, Parker has provided the size and strength to play the weak-side linebacker spot in Sorrentino’s 4-4 defense. He has 56 first-hit tackles and 49 assists, with five sacks and a team-best five fumbles caused. Parker, who plays on special teams and scored on an interception return against Osbourn Park in the regular season, was a second-team all-region return specialist as well as a first-teamer at linebacker.
“That outside linebacker in our scheme does a lot of strong safety-like things,” Sorrentino said. “Most teams’ free safeties play center field and their strong safety’s more of a run-support guy. James has to play up tighter, but he does have pass-coverage responsibilities and at times he rushes the passer or even lines up on top of the tight end.”
Parker runs the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds and bench presses 240 pounds. He even played in coverage at free safety throughout Hylton’s 14-0 first-round regional playoff win over Gar-Field (because Overton was limited with a back injury).
Saturday, Hylton’s defense faces an Oakton team led by quarterback Pat Day. The Cougars, seeded fourth in the Northern Region playoffs, won at Westfield and Robinson before beating Western Branch at home last week.
“I watched [Day] play when we went to the Oakton-Robinson game,” said Parker, who went with about a dozen teammates to the Northern Region final the day after Hylton beat Osbourn Park in the Northwest. “He’s like another Jeff [Overton] to me. He has great speed, real good moves.”
In 2001, when Hylton won the Northwest Region for a fourth straight year and lost at Thomas Dale in the state semifinals, Parker had to go to all the games as a fan. He missed his sophomore season for academic reasons, but classmates Cooper, Butler and defensive lineman Chris Winston helped him feel like part of the team.
Winston has missed this postseason with a knee injury and isn’t expected to play Saturday, but the other juniors figure to be prominent players again. Cornerback Jerome Quinata and linebacker Jackie Watkins are also juniors.
“They’re good teammates and all good players,” Parker said. “They’ve taught me a lot of things ever since middle school.”