East Central junior running back Tony Brown runs through arm tackles, makes defenders miss in the open field and outruns the secondary when he gets the chance.
The East Central ground game has improved each season since Seth Smith's arrival as head coach in 2013, but the Hornets have reached new heights on offense with Brown carrying the load.
Brown is currently the nation's leader in rushing yardage with 186 carries for 1,687 yards and 18 touchdowns, according to MaxPreps.com. The second-place rusher is Jonah Barnett of Mt. Gilead, Ohio, who is 140 yards behind.
Brown is listed at 5-foot-9, 171 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds.
He looks like a natural with the football in his hands, but basketball was his first love while growing up in Manhattan, New York. He moved to Mississippi five years ago to live with his dad and had little interest in football at that point.
“It was a culture shock, a big one,” Brown said.
Once he began to understand his classmates' thick Southern accents, he also began to share their passion for football and started playing the sport in middle school.
“Coming from New York, I was always a little wimpy kid,” Brown said. “I came down here and I got tougher and tougher.”
Brown is averaging 281 yards a game, putting him on pace to join the exclusive club of 3,000-yard rushers. The Mississippi high school single-season record is 3,411 yards by Noah Ingram of Ruleville Central in 1999, according to The Clarion-Ledger.
While 3,000 yards is a realistic goal, he said this week that he'd simply like to top East Central's top rusher from a year ago. A.J. Davis ran for 2,893 yards for 25 touchdowns for the Hornets in 2015.
Brown, who started at running back for the junior varsity squad last season, played receiver for the East Central varsity in 2015, pulling in 11 receptions for 342 yards and two touchdowns.
While Brown was flying under the radar entering the 2016 campaign, senior left tackle Conner Estes was already speaking in glowing terms over the summer about what his new running back was capable of.
“He's wicked strong,” Estes said. “He lifts as much as we do and he's only 170 pounds. I knew he would be elusive as far as the open field, bringing something we didn't have last year. I knew he'd hit the hole hard because that wasn't going to be an option if he wanted to play. Once he gets to that second level everybody sees his breakaway speed.”
Smith keeps feeding Brown, who squats 500 pounds, the ball more with each week.
Brown carried the ball only 11 times for 144 yards and a couple of scores in a 62-21 win over St. Luke's of Mobile in the season opener. Over the last five weeks, he has averaged 35 carries a game.
He was at his busiest in last week's 34-27 loss at Purvis when he carried 41 times for 293 yards and four touchdowns.
“Last year, I probably could have given him the ball more,” Smith said. “But I wanted to make sure he was good and hungry and good and ready. Of course, A.J. did a great job. A.J.'s toughness speaks for itself.
“One area I wanted to see growth in him — was he going to be tough enough to carry 30 or 40 times a game. My gosh, he has thrived. Every week, he's gotten better and better. What makes him special is his speed. Has a lot of success once he gets past the linebackers. He's blessed with a lot of God given ability, but that rascal works his butt off. He's a very tough kid. He's just a joy to coach.”
Brown's biggest game came in a 63-55 loss to Class 6A St. Martin when he had 41 rushes for a whopping 401 yards and three touchdowns. He had touchdown runs of 80 and 59 yards, outrunning a speedy St. Martin secondary.
St. Martin senior quarterback Wayne Overman admitted after the game that Brown was “crazy fast.”
Even Brown was a little taken aback by his numbers against a talented St. Martin squad.
“I wasn't expecting that much,” Brown said.
Brown also benefits from running behind a large East Central offensive line. The 6-foot-5, 304-pound Estes, a senior left tackle and Louisiana Tech commit, leads the group.
“They've been special,” Smith said. “Last year's line was a good one and so was the one before that, but these kids have been in the system three or four years. Hopefully they're seeing the fruits of their labor a little bit.”
As for the 3,000-yard mark, Smith would rather see his team focus on region play, which begins at 7 p.m. Friday with a trip to Moss Point.
“We don't talk numbers. We just try to get better,” Smith said of his team, which sits at 3-3. “I'm the first to tell you that's another coaching cliché, but that's a fact. (Brown) has a really good offensive line in front of him and the biggest one we've had since I've been here. Those rascals get after it. Would it be amazing (to reach 3,000 yards)? Sure it would be, but that's nothing we talk about. We're just trying to get a win.”