SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — It was a change that has put a charge into the South Pittsburg football team's offense.
Late in the summer before his sophomore season, Kamden Wellington, who had only ever played wing-T fullback since his little league days, was approached by Pirates coaches about making the switch to quarterback.
Having seen his arm strength in helping the high school's baseball team reach the state tournament, they believed a season of learning the key position as a backup could make Wellington ready to bring a whole new dimension to an offense that had typically relied heavily on the run.
Two years later, the results have far exceeded expectations as Wellington has rewritten the program's passing records and has the top-ranked Pirates (13-0) one step from what would be the program's third TSSAA Class 1A BlueCross Bowl appearance in a four-year stretch. South Pittsburg travels to Oliver Springs (10-3) for a semifinal at 7 p.m. Friday.
"What he has done is bring a balance to our offense that we wouldn't have had without him," said Pirates coach Wes Stone, who also coached Wellington in little league. "Kamden was a starting linebacker on our 2021 state championship team, so we knew he was fast and physical, but once we saw what he could do throwing the ball around at practice, we decided he could really give us something special at quarterback.
"If teams want to take away the run, just knowing you have the ability to throw it and be confident in that is something not many teams have."
In a glimpse of how he would carry himself on the field as the team's leader, Wellington didn't hesitate to capitalize on the opportunity.
"Me and my family knew since little league that I had a good arm, so I wanted to play quarterback, but I also wanted to do whatever my team needed me to do, so I had just sort of accepted being a fullback," said Wellington, who is also the baseball team's ace, with a fastball consistently clocked in the mid-80s. "Finally getting to show what I can do, it does make me proud of taking the opportunity and running with it."
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior is a major reason the offense has averaged 55 points per game in its nine matchups with 1A opponents in 2023. Against a schedule that included five ranked opponents, Wellington has totaled 2,563 offensive yards and 44 touchdowns, throwing for 1,810 yards — with just three interceptions — while also averaging 8.3 yards per carry.
While the stats are staggering, it has been his ability to step up when his team has needed him most that is even more impressive.
Against South Pittsburg's three toughest opponents so far — Division II-A's top-ranked Middle Tennessee Christian, which will play for a state title in its classification during next week's BlueCross Bowl at Finley Stadium; Whitwell, which had allowed an average of 14 points per game to that point; and Gordonsville in a quarterfinal last week — Wellington averaged 228 total yards and accounted for 10 touchdowns as the Pirates won those games by an average margin of 30 points.
"He's been dialed in since about the halfway point of this season to where we know he can take over when needed," Stone said. "And he's also become a vocal leader on the field. When he speaks, his teammates listen.
"Kamden's accuracy and arm strength plus his athleticism to run when we need him to really makes our offense tough to stop."
For his career, Wellington has thrown for 3,972 yards and 63 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,501 yards. Prior to the start of this season, he devoted extra workout sessions to lose 15 pounds, making him more of a dual threat.
"I just felt heavy at times last year," Wellington said. "I got really serious about being in better shape for this season, and I noticed the difference right away. In our first game, I was able to run away from defenders, which I couldn't really do last year.
"Now I'm as confident in being able to run the ball as I am throwing it downfield."
A more recent circumstance — not being named one of Class 1A's three finalists for the Tennessee Titans Mr. Football award after a second straight year of being a semifinalist — has given Wellington a renewed edge and eagerness to prove himself on the field even more.
The perceived snub, which came as finalists were announced Tuesday night, has certainly motivated his teammates, including leading receiver Racash Kelly and linebacker Jamarion Farrior, who was also a Mr. Football semifinalist.
"We all thought that was very disrespectful," said Kelly, who has 45 catches for 760 yards and 13 touchdowns. "But we know (Wellington) will be even more focused to show people that they messed up, and all of us around him will be, too."
Added Farrior, who was as aggressive in voicing his irritation as he is in stopping opponents: "All they did was add to the whippings that's coming for whoever steps on the field with us."
With a win this week, the Pirates would earn the chance to play one more time in 2023, this time in Chattanooga with a state title on the line. McKenzie (12-1) hosts Dresden (13-0) in 1A's other game this week, and the semifinal winners will meet in a BlueCross Bowl matchup at 3 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 1, at Finley.
"We're going to use these last two games to show what we're all about," Farrior said, "and we know our quarterback is going to use them to prove to everybody that he's definitely one of the best players in the whole state."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].