SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. - This was supposed to be Demetric Johnson's breakout season. After a sophomore year in which he gave coaches and fans a glimpse of his potential with sensational catches and runs as a receiver and kick returner, Johnson was moved to running back this year to ensure he would have the ball in his hands more often.
Better known simply as "Little Man" since he was five and played on a baseball team with players 2-3 years older and much bigger, Johnson built a reputation in middle school as South Pittsburg's next playmaker in football and a potential big-time college prospect. But a series of injuries - a high ankle sprain in a preseason scrimmage and a separated shoulder at the season's mid-point - left him standing on the sideline in street clothes for four games and limited his speed and ability to cut for several others.
In his absence, sophomore Jajuan Lankford stepped in and led the team with more than 2,000 rushing yards and became a Mr. Football finalist. Rather than pout during his inactivity, Johnson found other means of contributing, including serving as a mentor and advisor to Lankford on the sideline during practice and games.
And as the playoffs began, Johnson's injuries finally healed and he was able to remind coaches, fans and opponents alike exactly how valuable a player he is on the field as well. While Lankford has continued to be steady through the playoffs, Johnson has been specatcular, rushing for well over 100 yards in all four postseason games and nine touchdowns, including five scoring runs of more than 20 yards.
"It was very frustrating standing around watching games and not being able to help my team," said Johnson, who enters Friday's Class 1A championship game against Wayne County with 1,231 rushing yards, averaging more than 9 yards per carry. "I mean, I understand that injuries are part of the game, but that doesn't make you feel better when you want to be out there so bad.
"Our first playoff game was the first time all year I really started to feel completely healthy. I felt like I could trust my speed again and make moves to get past people."
The only thing that moves faster than Johnson in this football-crazed town is barbershop gossip.
In last week's semifinal at Gordonsville, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Johnson ran for 141 of his 176 yards in the deciding second half. With the game tied midway through the third quarter, Johnson took in a short pass and outran the Tigers secondary for a 59-yard TD that put the Pirates ahead. He later added an 84-yard scoring run in which he was pushed toward the sideline before regaining his balance, then broke another tackle before outrunning every other defender giving chase.
"The last words out of my mouth before the second half last week was to tell the kids that great players rise to the top in those type situations," Pirates coach Vic Grider said. "That's what Little Man did. I kept telling him all year that he would get his chance once he got healthy. After that game Friday, I found him and said, 'I told you so.'
"The scary thing is we haven't seen his best yet. He's got another year to get bigger, stronger and faster. If he lives up to his potential, he is as good as anybody we've ever had."
Johnson has continued to show his versatility over the last three games by also moving back to receiver for a few snaps while the Pirates' top two pass catchers sat out with injuries.
"He gives us that deep threat out there to keep teams from stacking the box to stop our run game," Grider said. "We've had some pretty fast backs here the last few years, and I've always hesitated to compare who's the fastest, but Little Man would be at the top of that list. He's faster than [last year's all-state runner] Raquis [Hale] was and I guarantee you Eddie Moore wished he had that kind of speed.
"He's a game changer. I expect him to have at least two or three big plays every game now that he's healthy."