Over the last half decade, no program has churned out top-tier running backs like Howard.
Michael Anderson ran for 1,394 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior in 2012, and Terrell Charles raised the bar in 2013 with 1,738 yards and 18 touchdowns in his senior season. Najee Savage in 2014 helped the Lions win their first of four straight regional titles with 1,555 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior, and Malik Anderson’s 2,005 yards and 24 touchdowns in his senior season helped Howard reach the 4A state championship game in 2015.
But after Anderson graduated as the school’s record holder for all-purpose yardage with 4,936, it wasn’t clear who would be the next great Lions running back. Alex Thornton was the expected starter entering the 2016 season but was injured in camp. As it always is with Howard, the next man up needed to carry the load for a team with state title aspirations.
Enter Devin Dawkins. Then a scrawny sophomore, he was a relative unknown around the county and even by some of his teammates. He didn’t play as a freshman because of poor grades, but he showed glimpses of star potential at practice with his limited reps. Still, he entered fall camp as the No. 3 running back on the depth chart, according to Lions coach Ross Hannon.
“I remember going into that game, I was really nervous because it was my first high school game,” said Dawkins, who is this year’s Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Offensive Player of the Year. “Coming into that season, I was thinking that me and Alex Thornton were going to be sharing carries but he ended up getting injured. So I was the next man up and I had to step up and coach expected me to work hard on every play and that’s what I tried to do for the team.”
By the end of the first half, Howard had found its new No. 1 running back. The glimpses that Dawkins displayed in camp showed out early in the second quarter, as he caught a 40-yard pass to set up the Lions’ first touchdown. In the fourth, he caught another 14-yard pass and two plays later outran everybody for a 64-yard touchdown catch on a simple screen pass.
Though he finished the game with just 23 yards rushing on 17 carries, he caught four passes for 132 yards and a score, and his big-play ability caught the attention of the coaching staff.
“Devin gives us some things and other guys give us other things, but life is a competition and he won it,” then-Howard coach Bruce Strunk said after that game. “He’s got great hips, great feet, great speed — he’s a very good running back and he’s got a couple years to get better.”
“He had the ability to improvise,” said Hannon, who was an assistant coach at Howard last year. “He can do things on his own and that first game going in he was unheard of and unknown and tough to scout and account for him. He just showed right there that if you don’t game plan for him he is going to beat you carrying the ball, and he can beat you catching the ball our of the back field, and he can beat you in the return game. He’s just a dynamic runner.”
Dawkins got better each week. He had 154 yards and three touchdowns on six carries in a Week 4 win at Mt. Hebron, and the following week he put the county on notice with a three-touchdown, 267-yard performance in a blowout victory against Oakland Mills.
Scorpions coach Tom Browne called Dawkins “an absolute beast” after the game.
Dawkins finished the year with 1,867 yards and 22 touchdowns on 203 carries in 12 games to earn first-team All-County honors, but he was unable to play in Howard’s state semifinal loss to Wise after he broke his collarbone in the 4A North regional championship against Mervo.
He narrowly missed being last year’s Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Offensive Player of the Year, which went to Glenelg’s Wande Owens. But not this season.
The junior finished with 1,404 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns on 196 carries and caught 12 passes for 151 yards and a score while sitting out the fourth quarter of most games. He was the focal point of opposing game plans, yet he continued to wreck defenses and help the Lions average more than 31 points per game. He added 66 kick return yards and 223 punt return yards and also started on defense, making 46 tackles and two interceptions.
Dawkins is the first Howard offensive player to earn Player of the Year since DaLawn Parrish, who is now the head coach at Wise, was the Overall Player of the Year in 1994. He also accomplished his three goals this year: win a fourth straight 4A North regional championship, get another crack at playing Wise and win Howard County Player of the Year.
“This year I really wanted to come out and show everybody what I was really about,” Dawkins said. “Last year I think I was going too much East-West and not enough North-South, so I worked this year and coach told me to get one cut and go, so that’s what I tried to do this year. I wanted to use my speed more.”
The physical aspect of the game is also something Dawkins hasn’t shied away from, despite breaking his collarbone. He said his youth coaches emphasized contact and worked on contact drills and that got him ready for the high school game.
“He’s probably as strong and physical a running back as he is quick and I think that plays into his hands,” Hannon said. “At 165 pounds, maybe you have an elusion that he’s a smaller kid who doesn’t like contact and that couldn’t be further from the truth. The physical part of the game is what makes Devin unique and different.”
Dawkins said he has continued to work on improving his grades in the hopes of garnering interest at the Division-I level. Hannon believes his future, which includes another year at Howard, is bright.
“Looking at Devin, you can see that he just has natural vision. That’s what makes him such a unique and talented running back. That’s rare,” Hannon said. “At the next level they call that ‘it.’ Nobody really knows what that ‘it’ factor is but you know it when you see it.”
In his first full season as a starter, Robinson lit up opposing defenses to the tune of 1,885 yards passing with 16 touchdowns. He also did damage with his legs, finishing with 755 rushing yards, the most among league quarterbacks.
“He was a leader for us throughout the offseason and took on a ton of responsibility for us offensively during the season,” said Scorpions coach Tom Browne.
Browne said Robinson essentially took over the running back duties when starter Jorie Kolliegbo was injured in the second week of the season. He added that Robinson is “right up there” with former Howard County Times Offensive Player of the Year Tre Hopkins (2015) and David Pindell (2014).
“Playing quarterback at Oakland Mills is physically and mentally demanding and he was totally up to the task,” he said. “He was able to get the ball to our playmakers on the outside and also create plays with his feet in the run game to keep us in a lot of games. Without him we would not have been able to move the ball offensively.”
Robert Agbai, Howard, senior.
Agbai has been the second-string running back for the Lions the last two years but still managed 515 yards on just 60 carries for an average of 8.6 yards per carry with nine touchdowns this season. He also made 35 tackles and had three sacks as a starter at defensive end.
“Robert brought explosive pass rush everyday, and he had a rare combination of strength and quickness,” said Lions coach Ross Hannon. “He is a true Howard program player, as he developed his skills every year and every day.”
Agbai had one of his best games against Sherwood in the regional playoffs. He forced an incomplete pass on a two-point conversion that would’ve tied the game by pressuring the quarterback, and he recovered an onside kick.
A two-year varsity starter, Booker was key for the Lightning in their run to the regional title. He led the county in rushing yards with 1,442 on a county-high 258 carries and broke the program record for career touchdowns with a score against Atholton in the regional championship. He finished the season with 16 rushing touchdowns.
Booker set Long Reach’s single-game rushing records for attempts (33), yards (266) and touchdowns (four) in a 29-28 win over Oakland Mills in the season opener. He also had a 94-yard touchdown run on the first offensive play in a 21-0 victory against Wilde Lake.
“His legacy has rewritten the rushing records in school history,” Lightning coach Jamie Willis said. “His durability throughout this past year and his ability to be patient and let his line open up the holes for him allowed him to have an outstanding season.”
Wande Owens, Glenelg, junior.
Owens, last year’s Howard County Times Offensive Player of the Year, battled an injury that cost him four games but still led the Gladiators to another deep postseason run. The single-season county rushing record holder had 941 yards and 10 touchdowns on 181 carries this fall.
“He’s one of the most dynamic players to play for Glenelg,” coach Butch Schaffer said. “He has been a standout player since he walked into Glenelg. He has three older brothers who all played for me. He brings toughness, confidence and work ethic to our team. He will be known as one of the best running backs to ever play at Glenelg.”
Owens had one of his best games of the year in the Gladiators’ 14-6 upset victory at River Hill in the 2A South regional semifinal. He had 105 yards in the first half and finished with 167 yards on 28 carries.
A three-year varsity starter, McKenna did a little bit of everything for the Hawks this fall. He had 1,046 total yards — 561 yards rushing and 448 yards receiving — and scored 10 touchdowns for the co-county champions. It’s the second straight year McKenna is a first-team All-County selection at wide receiver. He also had two interceptions on defense and threw a 37-yard touchdown pass.
“Brendan has been one of the best playmakers in the county the last two seasons,” River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said. “He is very athletic and has the ability to make people miss. Over the last two seasons, he always seemed to make big plays for us in the big games.”
McKenna has a scholarship to play lacrosse at Jacksonville University.
Anthony Reid, Howard, senior.
Reid has been the Lions’ go-to wide receiver the last two years. The three-year varsity starter and son of Howard offensive coordinator Tony Reid caught 25 passes and five touchdowns for 521 yards this fall. He also had 142 kick return yards and played well on the county’s best defense.
“Anthony made the most acrobatic receptions I have ever seen,” Howard coach Ross Hannon said. “He made a huge defensive pass break up in the end zone versus Sherwood and another on a deep post late in the third quarter against Paint Branch.”
Perhaps more critical than his receptions was his blocking ability. Hannon called Reid the best blocking wide receiver in the county.
“Our philosophy is ‘no block, no rock,’” Hannon said.
Kevon Simpson, Oakland Mills, senior.
Simpson was new to the Scorpions program this year and made an immediate impact. He led the county in receptions (53), receiving yards (901) and touchdowns (7) and had the most receiving yards for a county receiver since Tre Hopkins had 1,106 for Oakland Mills in 2014.
“He obviously possesses a lot of the physical traits you look for in a WR: he’s tall, can jump out of the gym, has great hands and speed and runs great routes,” Scorpions coach Tom Browne said. “The thing that sets him apart is probably his work ethic. He’s a kid who enjoys the game and competes every day in practice on both sides of the ball.”
One of his most memorable moments came in Week 1 against Long Reach.
“He tipped the ball to himself and caught a touchdown with no time on the clock to give us a chance to win,” Browne said. “He was double-teamed and everyone in the stadium knew where we were throwing the ball and he still was able to come down with it.”
Boswell is an “old school” tight end, according to Gladiators coach Butch Schaffer. He had eight receptions for 168 yards but did most of his damage in the run game. Schaffer said he was one of the best blockers on the team.
“He helped pave the way for the running backs the last two seasons as a starter,” he added. “Mitch made keys plays against Wilde Lake that enabled us to pull out a hard-fought game. He’s very smart, physical and aggressive. He is the type of tight end we are looking for every year at Glenelg.”
Boswell had a 46-yard reception against River Hill in their regional championship victory last year.
Trent Baker, Reservoir, junior.
A two-year varsity starter, Baker was a leader on and off the field for the Gators. Coach Bryan Cole calls Baker one of the most consistent players on offense and a leader in the weight room.
“Trent brought consistency and effort each day,” Cole said. “His tough attitude, execution of technique and willingness to battle in the trenches made him successful this past season.”
Baker also played on the defensive line and had standout games against Oakland Mills and Long Reach.
“I expect Trent to be one of the top lineman in the county and one of our leaders on the field and in the offseason,” Cole said.
Reggie Dillon, Long Reach, senior.
Dillon has been one of the most key contributors for the Lightning and their turnaround to regional champions this season. He’s a four-year varsity player and three-year starter, and coach Jamie Willis said he knew he had a special player when he made his first start against Howard and eventual Defensive Player of the Year Winston DeLattiboudere.
“In that game he was able to hold his own and has improved every year since,” Willis said. “Reggie’s ability to win at the point of attack was vital to the success we were able to have in the run game this past season. He was able to use his size and strength to wash down opposing defensive players to open up running lanes for KaDarrian Booker.”
Hawks coach Brian Van Deusen calls Florenzo their best offensive lineman and one of the leaders of the team. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound guard was a two-year starter and a team captain.
“He is an excellent run blocker,” Van Deusen said. “He is strong, physical and runs well.”
Florenzo paved the way for River Hill’s running game, which totaled 2,671 yards and 28 touchdowns to go with 6.2 yards per carry. He also kept quarterback Luke Champion upright to the tune of 866 total passing yards.
Alan Gorny, Howard, senior.
Gorny is a three-year varsity starter and opened up holes for Offensive Player of the Year Devin Dawkins and first-team All-County running back Robert Agbai. He led the team in pancake blocks and was also is a leader in the classroom with 4.6 GPA.
“He has toughness and humor,” Lions coach Ross Hannon. “He is another coach on the field and is the smartest player I have ever coached. ... Alan displays strength and toughness with the academic priority to attend Hopkins. He will work as hard to find a cure for cancer as he did to dominate the player across from him.”
Willson was another standout offensive lineman for Glenelg, which graduated first-team All-County linemen Dakota Davis and Trae Folkman last year. A two-year starter, Willson helped the Gladiators rush for more than 5,000 yards in those two seasons.
“He is a great leader of a very young group,” Glenelg coach Butch Schaffer said. “He possessed leadership and stamina and played both offensive and defensive line almost every snap this season. He will be known for being one of the guns that helped us be successful.”
Troy Hettinger, Marriotts Ridge, senior.
Mustangs coach Marcus Lewis calls Hettinger the best kicker in program history and the best kicker in the state this season. The three-year starter as kicker, punter and wide receiver finished his career with an average of 38.1 yards per punt and made 16 of 21 field-goal attempts and 30 of 32 extra points.
“Every day he bought consistent effort to practice and games,” Lewis said. “His legacy will be one of the best overall athletes to play football at Marriotts Ridge and the best kicker the school has ever seen.”
Hettinger accounted for 70 points on offense this year. He made 11 of his 16 field goals (a long of 40 yards), 13 of 14 extra points and had 18 touchbacks. He also caught 15 passes for 387 yards and four touchdowns.
A two-year varsity starter, Smith played wide receiver, outside linebacker, punter, punt returner and kick returner this fall and proved he has the ability to score anywhere on the field on offense, defense or special teams.
“It was plain to see that Osi was going to be a special athlete from his first day at Wilde Lake,” Wildecats coach Michael Harrison said. “Last season in a game against Mt Hebron he broke the game open by returning a punt 70 yards for a touchdown, and then on the next punt he returned it 60 yards, getting caught on the 5-yard line.”
This fall, Smith had 177 yards rushing on 22 carries and 448 yards receiving on 20 receptions. He had 64 tackles and six sacks on defense, and on special teams he had 213 yards on kick returns, 132 yards on punt returns and punted 22 times for 720 yards.