SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — Around here, the biggest man on campus is Little Man.
That status carries over into Friday nights, when the biggest big-play threat on a team loaded with offensive weapons is South Pittsburg senior Demetric "Little Man" Johnson.
The nickname was given to him by his mother when he was the youngest and smallest player on his youth league baseball team. And while he says he prefers to be called by his real name, the nickname seems to be the only thing he can't shake free from. Coaches, fans and even opponents agree, Little Man is arguably the best in a long line of gifted running backs to play for the Pirates.
"He's the best back we saw all year, no question about that," Signal Mountain coach Bill Price said.
"It's hard to compare a lot of their backs because they all had different styles," said Lookout Valley coach Tony Webb. "Eddie [Moore] is always the measuring stick from there, but I'd put Little Man right up there with him. I haven't seen anyone faster, I'll say that."
South Pittsburg has produced 20 all-state running backs, 13 of whom have come in the last 19 years, and head coach Vic Grider saw or coached almost all of them. As he began to mentally click off the best from that list, and their athletic traits -- speed, elusiveness, power, desire -- Grider paused and admitted that Johnson ranks at the top for each of those qualities.
"Little Man is probably the most complete back we've had here, when you put all it together," said Grider, who said Johnson has been timed at 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash and carries a 3.5 grade point average. "He accelerates through the hole faster than anybody I've coached or seen. He just has a burst that's awfully impressive.
"And considering he played receiver his first two years, and has played every defensive backfield position at some point, he's easily the most versatile player we've ever had."
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Johnson averages 21.5 yards every time he touches the ball and leads the team in rushing (1,687 yards and 30 touchdowns) and receiving (303 yards, four TDs). His 14.7 yards per carry is the highest average of any Chattanooga-area running back with more than 100 carries in a season since the Times Free Press began compiling season statistics 15 years ago. He also averages scoring a touchdown every fourth time he gets his hands on the ball.
With Johnson and speedy junior Jajuan Lankford returning kicks and punts, opponents have opted to play keep-away, pooching or squibbing kickoffs to upbacks and punting the ball out of bounds. Of the 77 combined punts and kickoffs by opponents this season, Johnson has just three returns and Lankford has one.
That type of knack for the big play will be needed tonight as the Pirates, who have played in four state championship games the past five seasons, travel to top-ranked Gordonsville. When those teams met in last year's semifinals, Johnson gained 141 of his 176 yards in the second half and broke a third-quarter tie when he took a screen pass 59 yards for a TD. He later added an 84-yard scoring run that began with him breaking a tackle near the line, then regaining his balance after being pushed toward the sideline before outrunning the pursuit.
South Pittsburg's defense has struggled this season, allowing 30-plus points in all three losses. But the offense -- led by Johnson, Lankford and senior fullback Corbin Hale -- is averaging 414 rushing yards per game. Lankford was a Mr. Football finalist as a sophomore and already has more than 3,000 career yards, while Hale averages 8 yards per carry.
But it's Johnson, who was named a Mr. Football finalist Thursday and has more than 3,000 rushing and 2,000 receiving yards in his career, who will be counted on most heavily tonight.
"He told me earlier this week that he didn't care if he only got the ball five times, so long as we win," Grider said. "I told him real quick, 'I appreciate that, but you're going to get the ball a whole lot more than five times.'
"What separates the good ones from the great ones is who performs in the big games. He has shown he can take over in crunch time of some awfully big games. Little Man is a game changer."
The knock on most Class 1A running backs with impressive numbers typically is the lack of quality competition. However, the Pirates have played 14 games against opponents from larger classifications in the last two years, and in those, as well as the six playoff games of the last two seasons, Johnson has averaged 11 yards per carry.
He had 221 yards and four touchdowns (all of 30-plus yards) on just seven carries against Signal Mountain. Against Boyd-Buchanan, one of the area's stingiest defenses, he gained 254 yards with two TDs on 14 carries. The rest of the team was held to 93 yards on 27 attempts against the Bucs.
He also ran for 309 yards and six TDs in less than three quarters against Lookout Valley and has gone over 120 yards in limited carries each of the last two weeks against 2A's top-ranked Grace Christian and then against Columbia Academy in the playoffs' first round.
Earlier this season, against 3A Polk County, Johnson took over late, scoring two TDs in the final 5:02 and finishing with 153 yards to rally the Pirates to a win.
"We played them the last two years, and we've played teams all the way up to 6A, and he is the best back we've ever played against," Polk County coach Derrick Davis said. "In all my years of coaching, we've never faced a guy that caused us more problems. He was a receiver for a couple of years and then a running back the last couple of years, so that versatility is what scares you.
"I've seen some of the best ones they've had at South Pitt through the years, and I think he's at the top. He's that rare kid that's strong enough to break tackles or he can juke his way out of trouble, and then once he takes off, he's gone. You're not catching him. I'm glad he's a senior. I'm tired of having to try to defend him."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...