This is the third part of a series on the greatest performances by Massillon players, as selected by the Booster Club Football Museum staff. Three distinct eras are considered in order to account for the variations in offensive styles. Part 3 focuses on the running backs during the era of the spread offense (1998-2021).
In determining the best running back performance and similar to the ranking of quarterbacks, it’s not necessarily about the player who had the best stats. The primary factor is the caliber of the opponent and the resulting impact of the performance. The criteria then are follows:
- The opponent must have had a top-level record and presented a significant challenge to the offense.
- The running back must have had better than average rushing statistics.
- The running back must have contributed a significant percentage of the total offense.
- If required, the running back must have been a significant factor in pulling out the win at the end.
THE ERA OF THE SPREAD OFFENSE (1999-2021)
Massillon began using the spread offense in 1998 when Rick Shepas became the head coach and it has been the offense of choice for all Massillon coaches since. With anywhere between three and five wide receivers in the formation, the tendency has been to throw the ball around 40% of the time, more than during previous years. Therefore, this presentation groups the running backs from this era.
What separates this time period from previous years is that when the spread offense became vogue the defenses changed their alignments to allow for coverage of additional wide receivers. This was particularly the case with the alignment of the defensive line and linebackers, which transitioned from a traditional 5-2 or 4-4 to a 4-3, 3-4 or even a 3-5. On the other side of the line, offenses ran fewer power sweeps due to less linemen, i.e., no tight ends, in favor of more buck sweeps, power, zone and quarterback read option. But in spite of the QBs also throwing more passes, thereby reducing the impacts of many running back performances, there were still a sufficient number of candidates to make a good list.
No. 1 – Willtrell Hartson (2020)
- Opponent – Westerville South (7-0); Division 2 regional semifinals
- RB numbers – 27 carries for 324 yards and 3 touchdowns; 12.0 yards/att.; 71% of the offense
- Final score – 45-36
- The story – Hartson wasn’t the starting running back when the season began, but the sophomore found himself in that spot against Canton McKinley owing to Raekwon Venson’s injury. Three weeks later he lit it up and set a new Massillon rushing record for total yards in a game. The mark surpassed the previous record of 302 yards set by Travis McGuire in 1991. Included in his night were touchdown runs of 54, 53 and 35 yards, with additional jaunts of 39, 25, 23, 17 and 15 yards. He was simply unstoppable in this playoff game.
His three touchdowns spanned the second and third quarters and helped the Tigers erase a 9-7 deficit, ultimately taking a 42-9 lead into the fourth. He might have called it a night at that point, but South had mounted a comeback in the final frame and Massillon’s first team needed to stay in to finish it off. That, of course, didn’t hurt Hartson’s chances of setting the record.
“Where he really separates himself is once he gets to that third level,” Massillon coach Nate Moore said of Hartson, who has rushed for 773 yards on 68 carries over the last four games since replacing the injured Raekwon Venson. “How he’s able to both break tackles and accelerate and choose the correct angles and cuts to finish runs through that third level. That’s where he’s been outstanding.” – Chris Easterling, Massillon Independent
Other Great Hartson Performances
- 2020 – North Canton (6-2); playoffs second round – Stats: 13 carries for 196 yards and 4 touchdowns; 15.1 yards/att. – Score: 48-23
No. 2 – Jamir Thomas (2018)
- Opponent – Canton McKinley (8-1); rivalry game; finished the season 9-3
- RB numbers – 35 carries for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns; 7.7 yards/att.; 73% of the offense
- Final score – 24-17
- The story – Jamir Thomas was an iron man for the Tigers and over both his final two seasons and his career he had more carries than any other back in Massillon history. The game against McKinley was no different and he rushed for a career-high (at that time) in this one. After the Bulldogs took a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter, Thomas ripped off a 78-yard touchdown run, cutting back through the line and then out-racing the entire McKinley secondary to the end zone. He would tally again in the third on a 16-yard run, but the score was still tied at 17 well into the fourth. So, from their own 49, the Tigers went to work, eventually scoring on a Zion Phifer run on the 13th play of the drive. Along the way, Jamir ran the ball six times and picked up 33 yards. Following a McKinley punt, Massillon ran out the clock with Thomas gaining 26 yards off of eight carries.
“We came out here expecting to pound the ball,” Thomas said. “I mean, they knew our plays. They were calling out our plays from their sideline. So we really just had to execute. That’s what we did.” – Josh Weir, Canton Repository
Other Great Thomas Performances
- 2017 – Ashland (9-2); Division 2 regional semifinals – Stats: 37 carries for 196 yards and 4 touchdowns; 5.3 yards/att – Score 18-7
- 2018 – Warren Harding (2-0); finished the season 8-3 – Stats: 29 carries for 262 yards and 2 touchdowns; 9.0 yards/att. – Score 51-21
No. 3 – Ryne Moore (2012)
- Opponent – Canton McKinley (8-2); Division 1 regional semifinals
- RB numbers – 37 carries for 227 yards and 2 touchdowns; 6.1 yards/att.; 55% of the offense
- Final score – 28-19
- The story – A second-round playoff game at Kent State University against the Bulldogs went the Tigers way, led by the powerful running of Ryne Moore. Not to be overshadowed by the passing of quarterback Kyle Kempt, Moore partially stole the show with a career day performance. He scored on touchdown runs of one and two yards. But in between had eight runs of ten yards or more, including a long one of 64 in the fourth quarter that turned the field and sealed the game. Ryne had an uncanny ability to, depending on the initial response of McKinley’s opposing linebacker, either run inside the tackle or cut to the outside in order to gain the maximum yardage.
No. 4 – JT Turner (2008)
- Opponent – JT Turner – Canton McKinley (6-3); finished the season 6-5
- RB numbers – 28 carries for 208 yards and 1 touchdown; 7.4 yards/att.; 62% of the offense
- Final score – 17-0
- The story – If there was ever a game against McKinley where one player literally took over, this was surely the one. It was not the best of Massillon teams, but Turner saved his best game for this one. His touchdown came in the fourth quarter, on a 26-yard run, that finished off a 12-play, 94-yard drive. The drive was kick-started by Turner’s 30 yard run. Then he added four additional runs totaling 16 yards before scoring the final TD. Playing both ways throughout the game, he also recorded 6.5 tackle points and forced a fumble, which he recovered.
Other Great Turner Performances
- 2008 – Akron Garfield (3-1); finished the season 8-2 – Stats: 22 carries for 192 yards and 2 touchdowns; 8.7 yards/att. – Score: 34-0
No. 5 – Brian Gamble (2005)
- Opponent – Cincinnati Elder (1-0); finished the season 4-5
- RB numbers – 15 carries for 173 yards and 2 touchdowns; 11.5 yards/att.; 36% of the offense
- Final score – 35-31
- The story – The game was a classic played at Cincinnati Bengal’s Paul Brown Stadium against a powerhouse parochial school. But that didn’t faze Massillon. And it didn’t faze Gamble either as he led his team to a 35-14 advantage by early in the fourth quarter. Included in that was a pair of third-quarter touchdown runs of 50 yards and 2 yards. The Tigers then held Elder off sufficiently the rest of the way to grab the victory. Gamble also led the team with 7.5 tackle points and intercepted a pass, which he returned for 37 yards.
“That was a great run,” Massillon Coach Tom Stacy said of his first touchdown. “It was just a power off tackle play and Brian Gamble broke it.” Gamble refused to take any credit for his heroics. “It’s not me,” Gamble said. “Our line has been blocking excellent and we’ve got Lanale Robinson running the football, too.” Now, Gamble says, people around Ohio are going to sit up and take notice of the Massillon Tigers once again. — Joe Shaheen, Massillon Independent
Other Great Gamble Performances
- 2005 – North Canton (7-3); playoffs first round – Stats: 14 carries for 146 yards and 2 touchdowns rushing; 10.4 yards/att.; 1 TD receiving – Score: 45-14
No. 6 – Freddie Lenix Jr. (2021)
- Opponent – Canton McKinley (6-3); rivalry game; finished the season 8-5
- RB numbers – 16 carries for 179 yards and 2 touchdowns; 11.2 yards/att.; 45% of the offense
- Final score – 35-13
- The story – Massillon was searching for a running back after Willtrell Hartson went down with an injury and tried Lenix in Week 9. After modest results in that one, Lenix turned on the jets a week later and was instrumental in routing McKinley. In the first quarter he scored on a 49-yard run and then finished it off in the fourth with a 68-yard sprint to the end zone.
Other Great Lenix Performances
- 2021 – Westerville South (8-2); Division 2 playoffs; Stats: 22 carries for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns; 10.3 yards/att. – Score 50-19
No. 7 – Lyron Wilson (2013)
- Opponent – Steubenville (4-0); finished the season Division 4 state runner-up
- RB numbers – 24 carries for 234 yards and 3 touchdowns; 9.8 yards/att.; 74% of the offense
- Final score – 37-21
- The story – Playing on the road at Steubenville is always a challenge, especially when the Big Red is undefeated. But Massillon was up to the task, led by the running of Lyron Wilson, who put up a monster night. In the first quarter he scored from the four and then added another of 30 yards in the second. Finally, with his team up 30-21 late in the fourth, he finished game off with a 14-yard touchdown run.
“It’s crazy; it’s a beautiful thing,” Massillon running back Lyron Wilson said. “We’re the first team to beat them in how long? … It was a great game for us.” – Chris Easterling, Massillon Independent
Other Great Wilson Performances
- 2013 – Canton McKinley (9-0); rivalry game – 26 carries for 184 yards and 0 touchdowns; 7.1 yards/att. – Score: 34-7
No. 8 – Terrence Keyes (2019)
- Opponent – Barberton (5-2); finished the season 7-3
- RB numbers – 30 carries for 255 yards and 5 touchdowns; 8.5 yards/att.; 62% of the offense
- Final score – 49-25
- The story – Keyes was the “the man” in this one, posting two Top-10 records, for total yards and touchdowns. In front a capacity crowd at Magic Stadium, he scored three second-quarter touchdowns, of 7, 8 and 1 yards, to give Massillon a 28-16 halftime lead. In the third quarter he added another from one yard out and then finished it off in the final frame by rambling 62 yards to paydirt.
No. 9 – Zion Phifer (2017)
- Opponent – Bedford (4-0); finished the season 10-2
- RB numbers – 31 carries for 196 yards and 3 touchdowns; 6.3 yards/att.; 47% of the offense
- Final score – 56-46
- The story – The sophomore Phifer, who was subbing in and out for junior starter Jamir Thomas, came up big in this high-scoring affair. Phifer scored touchdowns on runs of 17, 18 and 1 yards.
No. 10 – Perry James (2000)
- Opponent – Mansfield (3-0); finished the season 10-2
- RB numbers – 26 carries for 180 yards and 1 touchdown; avg. 6.9 yards/att.; 57% of the offense
- Final score – 27-7
- The story – James carried the load in this one, lugging the ball on 26 of the 29 rushing plays. His longest run from scrimmage was 37 yards. The touchdown came in the third quarter from one yard out and gave the Tigers a comfortable 21-7 lead. On the final scoring drive of the night, James either carried the ball or caught a pass on eight of the first nine plays. Quarterback Justin Zwick then finished it off with a 5-yard pass to Jeremiah Drobney.
GREATEST PERFORMANCE IN A LOSS
Devoe Torrence (2007)
- Opponent – Mentor (3-1); finished the season Division 1 state runner-up
- RB numbers – 36 carries for 283 yards and 4 touchdowns; 57% of the offense
- Final score – 52-56
- The story – The Tigers entered this one with a 2-2 record and were perceived to be no match for Mentor, which was coming off a blowout win over Cleveland St. Ignatius. But someone forgot to tell Devoe Torrence. Although Massillon lost this one, Torrence kept his team in the game throughout, scoring twice in the second quarter and once in the third to narrow the scoring gaps. His fourth TD actually gave the Tigers a brief lead of 45-42. But Mentor eventually tallied the winning points with just 24 seconds left. Torrence’s 36 carries ranks 8th all-time, his 283 yards ranks fourth and his four TDs ranks 10th.