EVENSVILLE, Tenn. — Long before his name began to race up Rhea County High School's rushing record books, there were glimpses of what was coming. Middle school football performances that became local legend were followed by a freshman year varsity debut sprinkled with even more promise.
And now — running behind an experienced group of six senior offensive linemen — Ethan Davis is showcasing more than just glimpses of talent. An otherwise soft-spoken sophomore, his exploits have become a weekly Friday feature presentation, accounting for more than half of the Golden Eagles' rushing total this season to help the program reach the TSSAA quarterfinals for the first time in five years.
"Oh yeah, I had heard about him before I ever saw him play," Rhea County coach Mark Pemberton said. "People all around our area were talking about how good he was, so I went and watched him play in middle school several times, and I figured out pretty quick what all the fuss was about.
"He's got quick feet, great vision and football smarts, but the big thing is he's gotten noticeably stronger over the past year, which has made him a more complete back because he's a physical blocker who can also break tackles and really carry a team at times. He's one of those exceptional players who only comes along every now and then."
The 5-foot-8, 160-pounder's highlights have spread beyond the borders of this football-crazed county — stretching from the Eagle Exxon and Mo Mo's Bar-BQ to the Drip Kitchen and Coffee shop — to become more than just a local legend. A growing list of opponents who have been blistered can confirm the stories about Davis aren't just folklore and that his ability is very real.
Going into Friday's Class 5A quarterfinal matchup at third-ranked Powell (10-2), the shifty Davis has averaged 8 yards per carry while rushing for 2,097 yards and 30 touchdowns. But what's most impressive is that he has gained more than 1,100 yards of his rushing total — and 19 of the touchdowns — in Rhea's past four games, including 615 in two playoff wins.
That includes a school-record 359 yards and six touchdowns in last week's second-round win as he outdueled Karns' De'Sean Bishop, a Tennessee Titans Mr. Football semifinalist. Two weeks prior to that, Davis ran wild at Bradley Central, finishing with 463 all-purpose yards (275 on the ground) and five total touchdowns to hand the Bears their first loss of the season in a 48-42 shootout.
"He sees the holes well and knows how to make a cut and get vertical quick," Bradley Central coach Damon Floyd said. "Once he gets past the line of scrimmage, it's going to be a long run because he's got breakaway speed."
Last week's rushing total against Karns broke a 44-year old single-game school record at Rhea and also gave him the Eagles' season rushing mark as well as the program record for touchdowns.
All of that has come in a wing-T offense behind a bulldozing crew of linemen that includes tackles Raul Patel and Justin Woody, guards Jaylee Elsea and Garrett Lemons, center Austin Curtwright and tight end Drew Fisher.
"My job is not really that difficult because of those guys," Davis said. "I know they're going to open up holes for me, so I just follow them until I get in the open. Football isn't a one-man sport, so it's all of us that has gotten us where we are.
"I had always dreamed of playing here. When I was little we would play on the hill during games on Fridays, and I couldn't wait to get on the field and be one of those guys. When I first started playing varsity last year, it was really intimidating because everybody on the field was huge, but after that first hit, I felt like I was going to be able to play at this level."
In winning nine of its past ten games, Rhea (10-2) has averaged 42 points, including totals of 51 and 63 against its first two playoff opponents. Rhea's losses came to Elizabethton — last year's Class 4A state champion — and six-time reigning 3A champ Alcoa.
Powell's strength this season has been its defensive front. That group is led by Walter Nolan (6-4, 325), who is the nation's top overall prep prospect, according to ESPN, and has offers from Tennessee, Texas A&M and Florida.
"We know they're really good up front," said Lemons, one of five two-year starters on Rhea's line. "We've played against defenses that were bigger than us, but we're known for being physical and we've played together for a long time, so we're a close group that's playing for each other.
"It helps just knowing that Ethan trusts us to get him where he needs to be, and if we do our job, he's going to do his."
CHATTANOOGA-AREA FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Friday, Nov. 19, 2021
All games 7 p.m. local time
Class 1A quarterfinal
Gordonsville (11-1) at South Pittsburg (8-2)
Class 4A quarterfinal
Upperman (11-1) at Red Bank (9-3)
Class 5A quarterfinal
Rhea County (10-2) at Powell (10-2)
Division II-AAA semifinal
Pope John Paul II (8-4) at McCallie (11-0)
GHSA playoffs, second round
All games 7:30 p.m.
Class A public
Trion (10-1) at Wilcox County (8-3)
Ringgold (10-1) at Thomson (10-0)
Northwest Whitfield (8-3) at Bainbridge (8-3)
Calhoun (9-2) at Ware County (9-1)