On the surface, it would be easy to consider the backfield mates to the all-state quarterbacks at both Baylor and McCallie as mere complementary pieces.
In reality, while each team's passing game gets much of the acclaim — rightfully so considering the level of talent both have at quarterback and receiver — it is the ability to create explosive plays with a simple hand-off that completes those offensive units.
The emergence of running backs Shekai Mills-Knight (6-foot, 210) at Baylor and Ja'Von McMahan (5-10, 195) at McCallie — both of whom average 6.5 yards per carry — has added a dimension of power and speed out of the backfield which makes both offenses practically impossible to contain and has certainly added to the stress level for defensive coaches on both sides.
"Honestly, from a defensive standpoint, a lot of the pressure is taken off because every time they don't score on a play I feel pretty good," said McCallie head coach Ralph Potter, who also coordinates his team's defense. "I'm not really sure that anyone expects either of us to stop the other's offense."
When the Blue Tornado and Red Raiders meet Thursday evening with the BlueCross Bowl Division II-AAA state championship on the line, offensive fireworks are expected to light up the night sky.
Baylor (10-2), which is looking to retain last year's title, is averaging 40 points per game, having been held below 31 just once all season. Meanwhile, McCallie (11-1), which will try to claim its fourth crown in five years, has scored fewer than 31 points only twice and averages 37 points.
Both quarterbacks — Baylor's Whit Muschamp and McCallie's Jay St. Hilaire — are committed to Vanderbilt, and each has thrown for more than 2,200 yards. Nine Blue Tornado receivers average 10-plus yards per catch, while five Red Raider pass catchers average 14-plus per reception.
But when opposing defenses decided early in the season that both team's passing attack was the only real threat, opting to either drop into zone coverage or bring blitzers from different angles, Baylor and McCallie made them pay by introducing their previously unknown battering rams out of the backfield.
"It was probably the fourth game of the season, against Lipscomb Academy, that Shekai was finally healthy enough that we turned him loose," said Baylor head coach and offensive play-caller Erik Kimrey. "You could tell Lipscomb didn't think we had much of a running attack, and they were not prepared for him."
When Mills-Knight, who has offers from Ole Miss and Cincinnati, arrived on campus he was hampered by an ankle sprain suffered in a preseason all-star game. Once fully healed — beginning with the 93-yard breakout showing against Lipscomb — the junior was full-steam ahead, gaining 864 yards in about nine games of action, which is about 200 more rushing yards than the rest of the team combined.
He averaged nearly 12 yards per carry in rushing for 152 in the season's earlier matchup with McCallie, a game that featured five lead changes before the Blue Tornado held on for a 34-31 win.
"Obviously his size is impressive, but people don't realize how fast Shekai actually is," said Kimrey, who will be coaching in his 16th state title game, having won 12 championships at South Carolina's Hammond School. "As he got healthier each week he just became more and more dynamic.
"He catches the ball extraordinarily well and hasn't had a negative rush on any carry yet. He's a guy we're not just comfortable with, we know we can count on him for big plays."
McMahan, who saw limited action for McCallie last season, now has more than double the rushing yards — 1,572, with 26 touchdowns, including 124 yards in the first game against Baylor — as the rest of the team combined. Although his playmaking ability with the ball in his hands is easy to spot, coaches also cited his blocking as perhaps the most underrated part of the senior's contributions.
"He's really grown and matured physically and mentally just since last year," Potter said. "He's already done some things this year that I hadn't seen him do before. If you look at our offense you'd say you have to limit what he gets for sure.
"Ja'Von has an uncanny ability to see and move laterally, redirect and get back downhill quickly. One play against Baylor, as we were trying to run out the clock, they had two guys in a gap but Ja'Von saw them and went 90-degrees sideways, then got back upfield for a huge gain.
"Successful offense is all about having multiple weapons and being balanced. Even if you have one great aspect on offense, other defenses can do things to limit the damage. But if you have to worry about everything, it makes for a much more difficult time for the defense. With these two backs, both teams can make the defenses have a difficult night."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].