JASPER, Tenn. - The future of Marion County football is in the hands of a kid who actually conjures memories of the program's proud past.
Blake Zeman, a 5-foot-9, 208-pound sophomore, is a throwback at running back who has helped return the team to the playoffs and reminds many supporters of one of the Warriors' most beloved former players.
"It kind of made me smile and brought back a lot of memories when I heard people comparing us," said former Marion all-state running back Pumpy Tudors, who played from 1983 to '87 and later starred at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is Zeman's cousin. "We're built similar and play with similar styles, and when I've watched him he runs old-school tough, like a Larry Csonka.
"He's not afraid of contact, and I told him to just keep working hard and enjoy his time, because he's going to do some special things and have a lot of people around Jasper looking up to him."
Warriors fans cling tightly to their heroes, such as former all-state running backs Eddie Brown, Eric Westmoreland and most recently Joe Muir, as well as Tudors, whose ability was overshadowed only by his politician's personality.
"He's got a big future in the game, and the thing I like is he's a very respectful kid who has a level head," Tudors said of Zeman. "He won't let all the attention change him, and I already see him thanking people for their support and just doing things that make the community feel good about the direction of the program."
Zeman already had made this a memorable regular season, rushing for 135-plus yards seven times, including a school-record 337 against Lookout Valley to help Marion make the biggest turnaround in the state, going from a program-worst 1-9 last year to eight regular-season wins. He then proved ready to continue carrying the Warriors (9-2) in the playoffs last week, turning in his most complete performance of the year by rushing 19 times for 143 yards, with four touchdowns plus an interception and a forced fumble.
With the Warriors holding a 28-21 lead, Zeman broke several tackles on his way for a 48-yard scoring run on the final play of the third quarter. He added his fourth TD of the game to help Marion pull away to beat Trousdale County.
Going into tonight's Class 2A quarterfinal game at defending state champion Friendship Christian, Zeman has rushed for 1,778 yards and 24 touchdowns and in 195 carries has yet to be tackled for a loss. He also has five receiving TDs and two kickoffs returned for scores and has thrown for two TDs. Moved from middle linebacker to the strongside position, he has 135 total tackles, four sacks and three interceptions.
"One of the first things I was told when I took the job was that there was a kid we could build the program around," first-year Warriors coach Mac McCurry said. "I watched a Youtube video of him and saw him hurdle a tackler as an eighth-grader, and I knew right then he could be special. That's not a move many kids that age can make.
"He's had big offensive nights for us, but last week was as complete a game as I've seen in a while. Our offense needs that battering-ram type runner, and he can turn short runs into big gains by the fourth quarter because people get tired of coming up and hitting him. He's a load."
Marion underwent a rash of early injuries. Blake's older brother Matt was one of three quarterbacks to get hurt, forcing the team to use a receiver as their fourth option at the position. But despite the injuries, and with a roster dotted with seniors, it has been the sophomore Zeman who has been the biggest ingredient in Marion's turnaround. He has flourished in the physical wing-T offense McCurry employs.
"I was a little nervous before my freshman year because I knew I'd be playing against a lot of older guys," Zeman said. "But after the first couple of hits, I realized I was ready. I like the contact. Big hits get the crowd and your teammates into it, and getting hit early gets me into the game.
"It means a lot to me to be a part of the team that's turning the program around, especially since my brother is a senior this year. But I'm just one guy, trying to do what I can to help the team win."