Rick Cleveland

Payton, Dupree, McNair, McAllister and Akers? You bet, says Rick Cleveland

Clinton's quarterback Cam Akers sets up to pass against Pearl in the MHSAA Class 6A football championship game in Starkville, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016.
Clinton's quarterback Cam Akers sets up to pass against Pearl in the MHSAA Class 6A football championship game in Starkville, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016. AP

Don’t know how many times I’ve been asked this lately but it’s a lot: Where does Clinton’s Cam Akers rank among the high school football players you’ve seen play in Mississippi?

I saw Walter Payton, Marcus Dupree, Steve McNair, Deuce McAllister, Jarious Norwood, Dontae Walker and so many more.

Until last Friday night’s State Class 6A Championship game, I’ve contended simply that Akers is as good as any I’ve ever seen. That he belongs in the first sentence of any discussion about the best player in the history of Mississippi high school football.

After Akers accounted for all seven touchdowns in the Arrows’ 49-35 victory, he changed my mind. He’s the best these eyes have seen. Nobody else could do what Akers did against a fast, well-coached Pearl defense that had given up 22 points in three previous playoff victories.

Akers ran for 217 yards and passed for 228. He also was outstanding at cornerback on defense. Don’t know what was more impressive: his sheer speed or his power. Probably, it was the combination of the two.

Invariably, people will counter: “But what about Marcus Dupree? He was fast and he was powerful, and he was a lot bigger than Akers. Willie Morris even wrote a book about him!”

And that’s all true, but with Akers, you also have his arm, his passing ability. On the last play of the first half, Akers, while running to his right, flicked a perfectly thrown 45-yard strike to hit a receiver on the run for a touchdown. It was simply an astonishing display. And although it seems set that Akers will play running back in college, don’t ever think he couldn’t play quarterback, especially for someone running a spread offense. He definitely could.

But what about Steve McNair, you say? Steve could run with power and speed and he could throw, as well. Yes, he surely could, but at Mount Olive High, Steve played against small school competition. Akers has done what he does against the best of the best. His statistics for his senior season read like something out a superhero comic book: 3,128 passing yards and 31 touchdowns with 2,105 rushing yards and 34 rushing touchdowns. He also had an interception return for a touchdown. That’s 66 touchdowns in one season if you are keeping score, and that’s what we do in football.

We can only imagine what Akers will do next.

Important to remember: Nothing is assured. Dupree, supremely talented, went off track and then fell victim to a horrible knee injury. Norwood and Walker never became the NFL superstars most would have predicted. Much will depend on Akers’ persistence, his work ethic and, then, just plain luck.

Every indication is that Akers has all the intangibles necessary to become truly elite at the next levels. Also important to remember: At similar stages of their careers, Walter Payton and Jerry Rice were virtually unknown. They weren’t the biggest, the fastest or most gifted coming out of high school. Payton chose Jackson State over Kansas State. Rice chose Mississippi Valley over the other SWAC schools. Both those Mississippi legends became NFL all-time greats as much because of their will and work ethic as much as anything else. Will Akers possess all that?

His coaches marvel at Akers’ will, as much as anything else.

“When Cam makes up his mind to do something, he’s just going to do it,” Clinton coach Jud Boswell said. “Nobody is gonna stop him.”

Next? He’ll play for the good guys in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star game Saturday at Montgomery.

Beyond that? He’s got a huge decision to make and he can choose from among any school in the country.

Don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to watch.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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