Taj Griffin of McEachern and Eric Swinney of Sandy Creek are the mostly highly recruited running back in Georgia, and each will have the chance to prove it this fall. For the first time in their high school careers, they will become feature players in their offense.
The two are the headliners in this week’s list of the 10 best high school running backs in Georgia even though their rushing totals are some of the lower ones in a group that includes 2,000-yard rushers Kawon Bryant of North Oconee and Mikell Lands-Davis of Alexander.
Grffin – rated the No. 1 all-purpose back in the country by 247Sports -- rushed for 1,225 yards in 2013 on a team that reached the Class AAAAAA semifinals. He was injured for part of the season and shared the ball with senior quarterback Ty Clemons, who also rushed for 1,000 yards. Clemons has moved on to Middle Tennessee.
McEachern coach Kyle Hockman said Griffin will be the focus of the offense this season but cautioned that he’s not purely a workhorse. Griffin sets up other parts of the offense. Hockman compared Griffin (5-10, 175) to Chris Johnson, the speedy former All-Pro running back with the Tennessee Titans. Griffin has been timed at less than 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
“He isn’t the I-formation tailback, smash-mouth style,’’ Hockman said. “He’s more the Johnson style. He is just so explosive and can score on any play. … I haven’t seen many other backs except those we play, but physically it’s hard to imagine others with his skill set.’’.
At Sandy Creek, Swinney had a similar junior season. He rushed for 1,289 yards in 2013 for a team that finished 11-1-1. Swinney shared time with Delvin Weems, another on the list of the state’s 10 best running backs.
Weems, who rushed for 1,233 yards, transferred to Tucker. That will result in more carries for Swinney. Sandy Creek also graduated all-state players at wide receiver and quarterback.
‘’I’m excited to see what he can do with 20 to 25 carries a game,’’ said Sandy Creek coach Chip Walker. “He’s a home-run hitter that can dominate a football game. We feel like we’ve still got a lot of good weapons around him that you can’t hone in on him.’’
The last Sandy Creek player to average more than 20 carries per game was Rajion Neal, who rushed for 1,812 yards and scored 35 touchdowns on the 2009 state championship team. He became a 1,000-yard rusher at Tennessee.
‘’Rajion was probably a little more deliberate than Eric; he would pick and choose more,’’ Walker said. “Swinney is a downhill, hit-it-hard guy that’s going. Both can run around you and make you miss, and both can catch the ball really good, but Swinney is very physical when he runs the football. You can see times on tape last year in big games late where it looks like they don’t want to tackle him anymore.’’
That’s despite not being especially big. Swinney is 5-10, 190. He’s rated the No. 10 running back nationally in 247Sports Composite Rankings.
Like Hockman, Walker believes he has the best back in the state.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,’’ Walker said. “There’s nothing he can’t do – catch the ball, pass protect, run with power, make big plays.’’ ‘’If there’s a better back, I wouldn’t want to play against him,
The 10 best backs in Georgia:
*Micah Abernathy (Greater Atlanta Christian): Abernathy was the leading rusher with 1,664 yards and 20 touchdowns on 154 carries (10.8 yards per carry) for a team that finished 10-2 and reached the second round of the Class AA playoffs. He also caught seven passes for 60 yards and returned four kickoffs for 279 yards and two TDs. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior is rated as a three- or four-star recruit as a cornerback. Abernathy also won the 400 meters in the Class AA track meet last spring. Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee reportedly have shown the most interest among the 20 or so BCS schools that have made offers. Abernathy is the brother of former Westminster and current University of Cincinnati running back Ralph D. Abernathy IV.
*Joshua Bettistea (Allatoona): The 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior was named first-team all-state in Class AAAAA last season after rushing for 1,938 yards and 27 touchdowns, with averages of 8.2 yards per carry and 176 yards per game, for a team that was 7-4 and reached the first round of the playoffs. Bettistea was a workhorse for the Buccaneers, averaging 21 carries per game, with at least 28 in each of his final three games. He ran for 1,190 yards and nine TDs as a sophomore. Bettistea is a three-star recruit who has interest from Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Tennessee, Duke, Georgia State and Georgia Southern
*Kawon Bryant (North Oconee): Bryant was named the Class AAA offensive player of the year after rushing for 2,559 yards on 272 carries (9.4 yards per carry). The 5-foot-9, 195-pound senior ran for a state-leading 41 touchdowns during the regular season and caught 15 passes for 208 yards. He also was named the offensive player of the year in Region 8-AAA and was the Athens Banner-Herald area player of the year. North Oconee finished 7-4 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The three-star recruit reportedly has interest from Georgia Tech, Georgia, Florida State, Clemson, Minnesota, Tennessee and Georgia State.
*Ruben Garnett (Aquinas): Garnett was named the Class A offensive player of the year last season after leading Aquinas to its first state championship, defeating Calvary Day 27-7 in the private-school final. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior rushed for 1,928 yards and 22 touchdowns on 263 carries (7.3 yards per carry) and caught 19 passes for 279 yards and five TDs. Garnett also had 58 tackles and an interception on defense from his strong safety position. The school showing the most interest in the three-star recruit has been Duke, but he has at least eight other offers, according to 247Sports.
*Taj Griffin (McEachern): Griffin is considered a four-star recruit by Scout and Rivals and is rated as the nation’s No. 1 all-purpose back by 247Sports. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior rushed for 1,225 yards and nine touchdowns on 170 carries for a team that finished 11-3 and third in its region but reached the Class AAAAAA semifinals. He had one of the most memorable plays of the 2013 season, returning a punt 85 yards for the game-winning touchdown with a minute remaining in a 35-32 victory in the quarterfinals against Collins Hill. Griffin has offers from more than 20 schools, including Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, Ohio State and Oregon.
*Sihiem King (Colquitt County): The 5-foot-8, 175-pound senior was named second-team all-state as an athlete by the Georgia Sports Writers Association and honorable mention as a running back by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was the leading rusher in Region 1-AAAAAA with 1,392 yards and 17 touchdowns, and he caught 34 passes for 369 yards and a TD. Colquitt County was the runner-up in the region and reached the semifinals for the fifth consecutive season, losing to eventual champion Norcross to finish 11-3. King reportedly has scholarship offers from Middle Tennessee and Southern Mississippi and interest from Tennessee.
*Mikell Lands-Davis (Alexander): Lands-Davis was named first-team all-state in Class AAAA last season after leading the Cougars (8-5) to their most victories in 16 years and their first appearance in the state quarterfinals. The 6-foot, 210-pound senior rushed for 2,374 yards (7.68 yards per carry) and 28 touchdowns last season and had three games with more than 300 yards. He also caught 23 passes for 350 yards and three TDs and passed for two touchdowns. The consensus three-star recruit reportedly has interest from more than 20 schools and has offers from Clemson, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and at least eight other schools.
*Tra Minter (Schley County): Minter, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior, was named first-team all-state in Class A last season despite playing for a team that finished 2-8. The three-star recruit, who is the nation’s No. 60 running back in the 247Sports Composite rankings, rushed for 1,600 yards and 23 touchdowns, including 315 yards and five TDs in a victory against Central-Talbotton. He also had nine receptions for 128 yards and was 17-for-43 passing for 368 yards, accounting for 65 percent of his team’s total offense. Minter reportedly has received interest from several SEC schools and offers from Troy, Georgia Southern and Middle Tennessee.
*Eric Swinney (Sandy Creek): The 5-foot-10, 190-pound senior is a four-star recruit who is the nation’s No. 10 running back in the 247Sports Composite rankings. Swinney rushed for 1,289 yards and 24 touchdowns for a team that also had another 1,000-yard rusher (Delvin Weems) and averaged 183 yards per game passing. Swinney also had 13 receptions for 343 yards and four TDs for the Patriots, who finished 11-1-1 and reached the state quarterfinals. He has offers from more than 20 major Division I programs, including Georgia, Georgia Tech, Auburn, Florida State, Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, Notre Dame and Oklahoma.
*Delvin Weems (Tucker): The 5-foot-8, 180-pound Weems combined with Eric Swinney to form one of the state’s top backfields at Sandy Creek last year, but he has transferred and will play his senior season at Tucker. Weems rushed for 1,233 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2013 for a team that went 11-1-1 and reached the Class AAAA quarterfinals. Sandy Creek won a state title in 2012. He is joining a Tucker team that went 14-1 and lost to Creekside in the AAAAA championship game. Weems, a three-star recruit who is rated as the nation’s No. 15 all-purpose back by 247Sports, committed to Marshall on Monday.
This is the second in a series of stories that will identify the top high school players at each position in the state. They are chosen primarily for their impact on the high school game, but their status as college recruits also is considered. Next week: Wide receivers.