A player like Howard’s Curtis Eley elicits a plethora of adjectives to describe his game.
Explosive, athletic and shifty are a few of the words that apply to the Lions’ playmaker.
But none of those are the adjective that constantly comes to Howard coach Ross Hannon’s mind when he sees Eley play.
“Different,” Hannon said. “He’s different.”
During the spring 2021 season, Eley proved that even against talented competition in Howard County that he was, in fact, different. In five games, the senior running back/wide receiver led the county with 967 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns for a Howard team that went 4-1.
For his efforts, Eley has been named the Spring 2021 Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Football Offensive Player of the Year.
“All coaches love to see their players who work hard succeed,” Hannon said. “That kid is just really different. He showed this season what we’ve all known for a few years.”
When Eley started playing football as a kid, he had a good example of a football star in his family. Eley’s older brother is Tavon Austin, the former Dunbar High sensation, West Virginia University star and NFL wide receiver.
“I first started playing when I was 7. I quit for a little bit because I liked basketball more when I was young, but when I started watching my brother more at WVU, it made me want to play football more,” said Eley.
Eley said Austin is always giving him tips on how to improve — from his release as a wideout to getting stronger and faster. Obviously, Austin’s talent level is almost unmatched, but the way Eley played this season as a versatile big-play threat resembled his older brother.
Playing as both a running back and a wide receiver, Eley finished second in the county in rushing and first in both receiving yards and touchdowns. His 967 total yards were roughly 350 yards more than anyone in the county, and he averaged 12.2 yards a touch — 18.1 per reception and 9.8 a carry.
He also returned kicks and punts for the Lions, totaling four return touchdowns in his varsity career. Of Eley’s nine touchdowns in the spring 2021 season, four came from more than 65 yards out, including scores of 68, 70, 73 and 77 yards.
“The way that I watch myself, I see a little bit of my brother, and that makes me feel better to show myself that I’m on the right track,” Eley said. “Trying to be more like him, but as my own player, has pushed me to be better every day.”
Eley spent his freshman season on JV, but he was called up to varsity at the end of his season, and that’s when Hannon witnessed his talents against a Lions defense that allowed 5.4 points per game during an undefeated regular season.
“At least once a day, he made a cut that we hadn’t seen all year from anyone in the county,” Hannon said. “He’s one of the most explosive players I’ve ever seen, and we saw then that his ceiling was off the chain.”
In his first season on varsity as a junior, Eley was one of the top wideouts in the county and ended the year as a 2019 first-team All-County selection. He started that season slow but finished strong, catching one pass in every game and ending the year with 392 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on 48 touches.
He also returned three kickoffs for touchdowns, garnering the reputation across the county as a return threat. Therefore, when the spring 2021 season started, he only got one opportunity to return a kick or a punt — since every team avoided kicking to him — but he made the most of it, taking a punt back 70 yards for a score in Howard’s win over Long Reach.
“They’re all about vision,” Eley said about kick and punt returns. “You have to make quick decisions. Look at two different lanes, pick one and run hard. But whether it’s a punt or not, every time I touch the ball, I’m looking to score.”
Picking a top game for Eley is difficult, considering he scored in four of five contests and had a 60-plus yard score in four of five games, but Eley’s favorite was his three-touchdown performance against Glenelg. Despite the close loss in the Elgard Trophy contest, Eley put the Lions on his back with a 73-yard receiving touchdown on a screen and two rushing scores.
“I learned a lot about myself in that game,” Eley said. “I wasn’t playing so great at the beginning of the game, but I settled down and we almost came back to win.”
“It’s one thing to play an 0-5 team and have three touchdowns, but it’s another thing to play arguably the top team in the county and be the best player on the field,” Hannon said.
Eley said he’s thankful for his coaches and teammates, especially quarterback Kyle Colbert, Hannon and coach Tyler Wade.
“Kyle is a good leader, and he’s one of my best friends,” Eley said. “And all the coaches have helped me a lot, both in life and in football.”
Last summer during the pandemic, Colbert would pick up Eley every day to go to the field and work on routes and plays, along with several other Howard players. Eley said those summer workouts built team chemistry that led to the Lions going 4-1 this spring.
Colbert, who had a solid season as a passer and a runner for the Lions, said Eley made everything easier for him. He knew Eley had the talent to explode this season, and that all he had to do was get Eley the ball and watch him run.
“We just had to get the ball in his hands. When he makes that first cut, he’s gone,” Colbert said. “I knew he had it in him the whole time. It was awesome to see him do what he did. I was so proud of him.”
Due to the nature of the spring 2021 season, with some teams playing as few as three games and no team playing more than six, the Howard County football coaches decided not to select a traditional All-County team this year. Instead, each coach was asked to name a Senior MVP on both sides of the ball from the spring 2021 campaign.
Offensive Senior MVP: Harlem Morton, wide receiver
Morton, a Hampton University commit, totaled eight receptions for 116 yards and scored one touchdown. Playing in the slot as well as split end for Atholton, Morton’s eight receptions were a team-high, and he averaged 14.5 yards per reception.
“He’s a kid that did everything we asked him to do,” said Atholton coach Eric Woodson. “He could stretch the field, but he’s someone I could motion and run on jet sweeps. He’s also a two-way player and played some corner for us, and he was our kick and punt returner. It was rare to see him come off the field.”
Standout performers: In addition to Morton, junior wideout Malik Hemmeian led the receiving corps with 122 yards receiving and one score on six receptions. Junior running back Kevin Smitson led Atholton’s rushing attack with 212 yards and a touchdown on 58 carries. Smitson’s touchdown was in the Raiders’ 14-0 win over then-undefeated Marriotts Ridge. Meanwhile, quarterback Miles Scott, who completed 45% of his passes for 409 yards, tossed two touchdowns versus six interceptions. He added 135 yards rushing and a score with his legs. Leading the Raiders’ offensive line was senior left tackle Jack Pryor, who created room for Smitson to run and protected Scott’s blindside.
Offensive Senior MVP: Sam Bussink, quarterback
Bussink led the Eagles to their best football season since 2013. The senior signal caller finished fourth in the county with 507 passing yards. He completed 50% of his passes with four touchdowns and four interceptions. He also totaled 104 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. The highlight of Bussink’s season was the Eagles’ 20-14 win over Long Reach to end the Eagles’ season on a two-game winning streak. Bussink threw two touchdown passes in the game’s final 30 seconds to lead Centennial to the victory.
“Sam was an integral part of our offense. He stepped up to play quarterback this year and did a great job leading our offense,” said Centennial coach Billy Martin. “His confidence, poise and determination rubbed off on his teammates and allowed us to be effective in our execution.”
Standout performers: Without Praise Bright, Bussink’s success at quarterback wouldn’t have been possible. Running behind an offensive line led by senior Kevin Hammond, Bright, a junior, finished fourth in the county with 501 yards on 131 carries. No team in the county had more 100-yard receivers than the Eagles, as Khalil Conteh (12 catches, 187 yards, one touchdown), Brendan Hlibok (11 receptions, 117 yards, two scores) and Jake Thomas (five receptions, 101 yards, one touchdown) were regularly catching passes from Bussink.
Offensive Senior MVP: Robbie Tolbert, wide receiver
Tolbert’s importance to the Glenelg offense was on full display in the second quarter of the Gladiators’ Elgard Trophy win over Howard. When the Gladiators needed a spark, Tolbert was there to provide it with a 67-yard touchdown reception. In just three games, Tolbert finished seventh in the county with 168 receiving yards and two touchdowns on six receptions. He added 80 yards and a score on 11 carries on jet sweeps.
“Robbie was a two-year starter on varsity at wide receiver and was one of the most explosive seniors on the field this year,” said Glenelg coach Tim Cullen. “Robbie made big plays in the Howard game, which got us on the scoreboard early, as well as some critical catches on our final game-winning drive. Robbie caught the ball, ran the ball and even completed a pass in his Glenelg career. Robbie is a strong leader with a relentless work ethic and is always trying to improve his craft.”
Standout performers: Despite playing only three games while most teams played five, Glenelg scored more points than any team in Howard County, averaging 41.3 per game. In addition to being the highest-scoring team in the county, the Gladiators were also balanced with two 100-yard rushers and a 400-yard passer. Junior quarterback Bisi Owens was one of the top signal callers in the county with 404 yards passing and two touchdowns on 18 of 28 passing. He also ran for 179 yards and six touchdowns, which ranked tied for second in the county. Leading the Gladiators’ rushing attack was Adrian Russell, who returned from injury to total 253 yards and four scores on 44 carries. He ran behind senior center Kevin Pak, who was a three-year starter at center and the quarterback of the line.
Offensive Senior MVP: Micah Austin, wide receiver
Austin led the Golden Bears with 20 catches for 202 yards and three touchdowns. His 202 yards ranked fourth in Howard County. The highlight of Austin’s season was a 41-yard reception in the second quarter in Hammond’s 7-6 win over Mt. Hebron during the last game of the season.
“Micah was involved in every unit and rarely came off the field,” said Hammond coach Will Bell. “He can stretch the field and make the tough catches.”
Standout performers: No team in the county played more games than Hammond, and the Golden Bears ended up having two 100-yard rushers, three 100-yard receivers and two passers with 200-plus yards. Tim Haywood (74 carries, 271 yards, one touchdown) and Nathaniel Lamb (29 carries, 141 yards) led the rushing attack, while Tayshawn Yates (10 catches, 110 yards) and Nick Thomas (five receptions, 100 yards, one touchdown) paced the receiving corps alongside Austin. Senior Eric Grinwis (287 passing yards, one touchdown, four interceptions) and Jordan Campbell (208 passing yards, three touchdowns, four interceptions) both played under center throughout the season. The Golden Bears’ offensive line was led by junior Kyle Jeffers, who started every game at center.
Offensive Senior MVP: Kyle Colbert, quarterback
Colbert was statistically one of the best quarterbacks in Howard County during the spring 2021 season. Through the air, Colbert completed 32 of 49 passes (65%) for 507 yards (third in county) and four touchdowns versus three interceptions. On the ground, the senior signal caller totaled 201 yards and four scores on 22 attempts. He was also a solid punter, averaging 39 yards per punt.
“Kyle is a leader by his play and has the unique ability to improvise when necessary,” said Howard coach Ross Hannon. “Kyle was at his best in critical situations and made some huge plays outside the pocket. He’s deceptively quick.”
Standout performers: For Eley and Colbert to thrive, they needed a strong offensive line. Junior center Harsh Shah and sophomore guard Logan Boone provided that strength in leading the Lions’ blocking unit. While Eley gained most of the Lions’ yards and scored most of their touchdowns, a few other wideouts contributed as well. Cooper Haberern (three receptions, 60 yards, one touchdown), Alex Brown (seven catches, 60 yards), Carson Robinson (seven receptions, 48 yards) and Coby Robinson (eight catches, 72 yards) were all receiving options for Colbert.
Offensive Senior MVP: Chris Martin, wide receiver
Martin was Long Reach’s leading receiver with 110 yards and 17 catches. He also totaled 133 yards on 15 carries. The Bridgewater College commit even played a little quarterback for the Lightning as the coaching staff tried to get the ball in the hands of one of their most talented players any way possible. Before spending part of his junior year injured, Martin was a first-team All-County selection as a sophomore when he totaled 50 receptions for 751 yards and nine touchdowns.
“Chris was unbelievably important for us,” said Long Reach coach Jamie Willis. “He did a lot of different things, played a little quarterback on top of playing wideout. He was a huge factor for us on offense, especially with having a young team. He did whatever we asked of him, and he did an absolutely awesome job for us.”
Standout performers: Running back Julius Saunders finished seventh in the county with 305 rushing yards on 80 carries while also leading the Lightning with three touchdowns. Creating holes for Saunders to run were the team’s top offensive linemen — Alex Willis and Zach King. Through the air, quarterback Alex Coffey threw for 249 yards and one touchdown versus five interceptions, while tight end Kojo Addo had 109 yards receiving and two touchdowns on five receptions.
Offensive Senior MVP: Kam Young, running back
Young led the high-scoring Mustangs’ offense in every rushing category. The senior totaled 382 and five touchdowns on 58 carries (6.6 yards per carry) in five games. He also caught 12 passes for 130 yards and a score as the Mustangs’ second-leading receiver. His 382 rushing yards ranked him sixth in the county. Two years ago, Young was a first-team All-County pick at running back after a breakout sophomore season. Young has a preferred walk-on spot to play defensive back at West Virginia University.
“Kameron is a very explosive athlete,” said Marriotts Ridge coach Marcus Lewis. “His speed and athleticism are what set him apart. He’s hands down the most explosive athlete Marriotts Ridge has ever seen. Anytime he had the ball in his hands he was a threat to take it to the house. He overcame a lot to play his senior year, and I am really proud of him.”
Standout performers: The Mustangs had a three-headed rushing attack this season. In addition to Young, Quinn Kelley (34 carries, 162 yards, two touchdowns) and Stevie Jackson (19 rushes, 155 yards, two scores) led a Marriotts Ridge offense that opened the season with three straight 35-plus-point performances and finished third in the county at 21.4 points per game. As the Mustangs’ game manager under center, Casey Pung took a step forward this season as a passer. The junior completed 33 of 59 passes for 402 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
Offensive Senior MVP: Zion Holmes, wide receiver
The Vikings’ offensive coaches worked to get the ball in Holmes’ hands, whether it was downfield passes, screens or jet sweeps. He ended the season second in the county in receiving yards behind only Eley. Holmes caught 22 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns in six games. The Kentucky Christian University commit had 110 yards and a touchdown in the Vikings’ season-opening win over Centennial. In Hebron’s second game, Holmes was heavily used on jet sweeps, totaling seven catches for 73 yards and a score.
“The team really gravitated towards him. He really helped with that team chemistry piece,” said Mt. Hebron coach Shawn Frederick. “He was a big piece of our offense, and we counted on him to make a big play when we needed it.”
Standout performers: The Vikings’ leading rusher was Guan Morris, who ran for 139 yards on 27 carries in three games. Morris was a second-team All-County selection in 2019, as was one of Mt. Hebron’s top offensive lineman, Chris Buehlman. Buehlman, along with Terry Tun and Elias Kim, were the “centerpieces” of both the Vikings’ offensive and defensive lines, Frederick said.
Offensive Senior MVP: Antoine Holmes, quarterback
Holmes led the county in rushing yards and touchdowns and finished second in carries. The senior signal caller in the Scorpions’ run-first offense tallied 125 rushes for 673 yards and eight touchdowns. He had 100 yards more than Eley, who was second in the county with 550 rushing yards. He also had 243 yards on 23-of-50 passing. Holmes, who was a first-team running back in 2019, had multiple big moments in the fourth quarter for Oakland Mills. He had the game-winning touchdown run as time expired in Oakland Mills’ win over Centennial, and his deep pass to Kanye Holland against Mt. Hebron and subsequent touchdown run propelled the Scorps to victory.
“Antoine was the heart and soul of this year’s team,” said Oakland Mills coach Tom Browne. “What separates Holmes from previous Oakland Mills quarterbacks is the fact that he was a two-way starter. He not only started on both sides of the ball but was arguably our best defensive player. He is as tough as they come.”
Standout performers: Holmes accounted for 79% of Oakland Mills’ yards, but Trevin McHargh was also a key rusher for the Scorpions. McHargh totaled 212 yards and two touchdowns on 45 carries. Leading the offensive line was Tyree Dantzler, who made all the Scorpions’ line calls and adjustments. Dantzler, who will play at Hudson Valley Community College this fall, was especially excellent at trapping on the team’s counter play
Offensive Senior MVP: Malcolm Brown, quarterback
Coming off a second-team All-County season as a junior in which he led the league in passing, Brown finished second in passing yards this season. In four games, the signal caller completed 40% of his passes for 519 yards, four touchdowns and only one interception. Brown is a Morgan State commit.
“Malcolm has been a clear leader of the Gators on and off the field for three years as a varsity starter at quarterback. He has grown as a student and athlete and helped develop our program from within,” said Reservoir coach Bryan Cole. “As a staff, we have all been overly impressed with his attitude, perseverance and execution. We are looking forward to his career at Morgan State University.”
Standout performers: With a talented quarterback comes pass catchers, and the Gators had two wideouts total 100-plus yards this season. Justin Cotton caught 11 passes for 121 yards, while Destin Hill led the Gators in receiving with nine receptions for 149 yards. Cotton’s three touchdowns were tied for first in the county.
Offensive Senior MVP: Michael Crisitello, running back
Crisitello led an offense that scored 19 points per game, which was tied for fourth in the county. He totaled 575 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns in five games. As the Hawks’ outside runner, Crisitello ran for 451 yards on 83 carries (5.4 per rush) and five scores and added four receptions for 124 yards. His best game of the season was against Hammond when he ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries and also have seven tackles as an outside linebacker.
“Michael had an outstanding senior season,” said River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen. “He is a very tough, physical runner, and an outstanding blocker. He always made big plays when we needed them.”
Standout performers: The Hawks had the best one-two rushing attack in the county with Crisitello and Zach Igwebe. As River Hill’s inside runner, Igwebe — arguably the best all-around player in the county — led the Hawks in carries (106) and rushing yards (534). He averaged 5 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. Without a stout offensive line, though, Crisitello and Igwebe wouldn’t have been able to have success, and leading the Hawks’ line was center Gurdeep Barring. Starting quarterback Dylan Burnett completed 14 of 28 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown, while change-of-pace quarterback Myles McDuffie ran for 207 yards and a score on 41 carries. Nick Laumann added two touchdowns on the ground for a team that ran for 12 scores.
Offensive Senior MVP: Grant Gladden, kicker
As one of the top kickers in the county, Gladden made his presence felt in the Wildecats’ first game. Gladden, who was playing in his first football game, made three field goals, including the game-winner, to lift Wilde Lake over Hammond. The senior was consistent throughout the season for a Wilde Lake team that went 4-2 and was tied for fourth in the county in scoring at 19 points per game.
“Grant was a great addition to the team this year,” said Wilde Lake coach Brian Henderson. “Grant was one of the leading scorers for the Wildecats and matched his kicking ability on the field with his leadership, work ethic and commitment.”
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Standout performers: Leading the Wildecats’ offense was quarterback Doniele Cooper. The senior signal caller led the county in passing yards with 631 in six games, tossing six touchdowns versus three picks. He was also the team’s leading rusher, totaling 262 yards and a score on 57 carries. Headlining the Wilde Lake backfield was Sean Barnes, who ran for 104 yards on 41 carries. Amari Hutson led the Wildecats in receiving with 235 yards, which ranked third in the county, and one touchdown on 14 catches. Justin Avinger was fifth in the county with 201 yards and led Wilde Lake in touchdown receptions with three. Ramal West and Enosh Minney also contributed as pass catchers with receiving touchdowns.