John Sponheimer begins his 42nd season as an assistant coach for the storied
football program this fall. He's been fortunate enough to see some of the best running backs in Connecticut history.
Sponheimer had a front-row seat when Edwin Esson, from neighboring Seymour, rumbled through the Naugatuck Valley and earned 1980 Parade All-American honors. He was around during Tebucky Jones' tenure at New Britain, and he watched Bloomfield's Andrew Pinnock run for over 300 yards against Ansonia in the 1998 ClAC Class S final en route to an NFL career.
Connecticut has an exceptional senior class of running backs this season: Harold Cooper
of Hillhouse (New Haven)
; Marcus Outlow
, Norwich Free Academy
; Arkeel Newsome
, Ansonia; and Ervin Philips
, West Haven
. They're all being courted by Division I programs, an anomaly for a state that produces several top-caliber players every season, but never this many running backs at once.
"I think it's pretty unusual," Sponheimer said, "but it's great for the high school football fan in Connecticut to have so many good kids playing. They've all really set a tremendous standard for the area for many years. I don't know if we'll ever see this again. You never know. It's just hard numbers-wise to have that kind of runners at one period of time."
Cooper and Newsome have helped their respective schools win two state titles each. Outlow and Philips will play for state championship contenders this season. Each share certain traits, but also enjoy distinctive styles.Harold Cooper, Hillhouse: The Burner
Cooper can lay claim to being the state's fastest teenager. He's the defending State Open 55-meter champion (6.46 seconds), and he's blazed through the 40-yard dash (4.39).
"I'm scared to death of him," said Sean Marinan, head coach of reigning three-time Class LL champion Xavier of Middletown. "The kid has got great vision, runs hard and does not quit."
Hillhouse coach Reggie Lytle said, "He's the fastest out of the four of them. To me, he's a more powerfully explosive running back than the other three."
Cooper has already rushed for 4,950 yards, averaging 10.5 yards a carry, and ranks 15th in career rushing yardage, according to the Connecticut High School Football Record Book. He has 71 career touchdowns, and helped the Academics to Class M titles in 2010 and 2012.
Of the four backs, Cooper has received the fewest Division I looks. At 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds, colleges haven't made him as big a priority as his three contemporaries.
Cooper, however, has proven he's as tough as he is fast. He squats more than 500 pounds, and he's not afraid of contact.
"I've played with older kids all my life and been getting hit by older kids all my life," Cooper said. "I'm used to getting hit. Every time I get hit hard, I'm going to get up. I'm not scared, I can take it. I'm just a tough little guy."Marcus Outlow, Norwich Free Academy: The Prototype
Jemal Davis has trained some exceptional athletes as the head coach at NFA and former head coach of the school's track and field program. His top pupil was Myles Bradley, who set State Open records in the 55 hurdles and long jump, and went on to set Stanford's 600-meter record.
Outlow nearly mirrors Bradley's athletic ability, Davis said.
"I would say Marcus is one or two (of the best) in terms of athletic ability," Davis said. "Number one is definitely Myles Bradley. There's no doubt about it, but Marcus is right up there because he has size to go with that athletic ability. For track and field, you don't want big guys. Myles was probably 175 pounds. Marcus is 210, and he can do a lot of the same things."
Outlow (6-foot-0) has run the 40 in 4.48 seconds. He lifted a combined 1,010 pounds in the bench, squat and power clean in an August weight lifting competition against rival New London. He's given Boston College a verbal commitment, and has drawn interest from the likes of Alabama and Wisconsin.
"My freshman year, I was a scrawny kid," Outlow said. "I'd probably be called a scatback. I really didn't want to be touched. My sophomore year, it was kind of the same thing. My junior year, I was 195 pounds. This year, I've put on about 10-to-15 more pounds. I still have my speed, and I'd say I'm a balanced back, but if I have to, I will lower my shoulder and get that extra yard."
Staples High learned quickly about Outlow's power in last year's Class LL semifinals. He dragged along four defenders on an early 28-yard run and helped NFA upset the heavily-favored Wreckers, 30-28.
"That just showed how strong I was and how explosive I can be, and how I refused to go down," Outlow said, calling that his best run. "That run kind of showed you the type of runner that I am."
Arkeel Newsome, Ansonia: The Record-Breaker
Newsome has scored a state-record 119 career touchdowns, the majority during his sophomore and junior seasons.
Newsome's favorite - a 95-yard sprint during the Chargers' 38-0 win over Ledyard in the 2011 Class M final.
"I'm always watching that one," Newsome said. "It was crazy. Against Seymour my sophomore year, I had a longer one (97 yards). The 95-yarder felt better because it was the championship game and my last run."
That run concluded Newsome's mind-boggling sophomore year. He ran for a state-record 3,763 yards, averaging 12 yards a carry, as well as a state-record 62 touchdowns.
Newsome, who has committed to UConn, should break more state records this season. He needs eight points to set the scoring mark and 1,475 yards to become the career rushing leader. Former Ansonia great Alex Thomas holds both records.
Like Cooper, Newsome has deceptive power. He's 5-foot-8, 182 pounds, but doesn't mind getting physical. He said he trains his legs as much as possible in order to give him more power.
"I'm not afraid of contact," Newsome said. "I actually like contact. When I was young and in Pop Warner, I played at linebacker, so I like to hit and all that."
Ansonia coach Tom Brockett said, "We expect our running backs to be really physical. At a young age, we pound it into them to be physical. You can't worry about (him getting hurt). We expect him to lower his shoulder."Ervin Philips, West Haven: The Shifty One
Philips admits he'd much rather run around - or by - a defender.
"My running style is shifty," he said. "I'm not really an in between-the-tackles runner. I'm more of a make-you-miss, get-you-in-open-space runner. That's always been my style.
"I don't weigh that much (178 pounds), so that hard running game, that ground-and-pound game, has never been my style. I like to make people miss. That's what I enjoy."
Philips is also versatile. He ran 124 times for 1,057 yards last season, caught 12 passes for 336 yards, and threw for 168 yards and three touchdowns. He scored 23 TDs.
"He'll make you miss in the open field," Marinan said. "You have to contain him and really make him earn his yardage. Give him a crease, he's going to take it, and you're going to be seeing his butt running away."
Ed McCarthy, who has coached 42 seasons at both West Haven and St. Joseph of Trumbull, said Philips is the best running back he's ever had.
"I really don't like comparing players," McCarthy said, "but I always go back to how versatile (Philips) is. He can run the ball. He loves to run the ball from tackle to tackle, but he does his best work, and makes his home runs, on the perimeter. He's a threat to catch the ball, too. He's not solely a running back."
Syracuse and Temple have given Philips offers, while Old Dominion, UConn, Utah and Villanova have shown interest. At 5-foot-11, he could wind up being a slot receiver, which he prefers to being a running back.
"It's easier to get in space," Philips said. "If I can get in space, then I feel like I can be really effective."Ned
Griffen has covered high school, college and professional sports in the
Northeast since 1992. A 2003 New England Associated
Press News Executives award winner, he may be reached at email@example.com or follow him @MetalNED