Uriah Bethea was frustrated with himself. Sure, he had scored seven touchdowns as a sophomore on varsity, but it came in mop-up duty against already demoralized defenses.
The young running back from Wise lacked the burst and strength to carry the ball 25 times a game. He'd often complain of nagging injuries, which limited his effectiveness and didn't exactly endear him to the coaching staff. And in Prince George's County, where even the cornerbacks can bring the pain, you had better be able to play through a few bumps and bruises.
"I wasn't running up to my potential," Bethea said. "I was kind of weak; my body wasn't where it needed to be. I had to get a lot stronger if I wanted to have an impact on varsity."
Wise was counting on Bethea's development. With all except one starter graduating off their 2009 state finals squad, coach DaLawn Parrish needed a replacement to carry on the Pumas' power-football tradition.
Parrish could see Bethea's potential - the leg drive, the desire, the moves - but he just wasn't sure he could take the week-in-week-out pounding.
The questions persisted into the summer. But in late August Wise had their first scrimmage against stellar defenses like Dunbar (D.C.) and McDonough, who went on to win the 2A state championship. Bethea more then held his own.
"He carried the rock hard between the tackles; we kept giving him the ball and he wasn't slowing down," Parrish said. "After that, we knew we had something special."
Wise's best player, senior quarterback DeAndre Smith, agreed.
"You could just see his pads were lower and he was so much stronger," said Smith, the Pumas' lone returning starter in 2010. "We could tell he would be a force."
Bethea didn't let them down. Using his newfound toughness and field vision, the 6-foot, 180-pound 'back ranked top-10 in the state with 1,679 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns last year, earning All-State honors as a junior. He racked up 11 100-yard games, eight multi-touchdown games and averaged 7.5 yards per carry.
Although he's a bigger 'back, Bethea showed the speed and elusiveness to bust out in the open field. But in Wise's downhill offense, he was usually asked to wear down defenses between the tackles.
"We pride ourselves on being a physical team, and Uriah did a great job leading the rushing attack," Smith said. "He stepped up when we needed it most."
Smith wasn't kidding. In the state semifinals Wise took on a Broadneck defense that ranked top five in the state.
Bethea was stymied early, held to just 20 yards in the first half as Wise trailed 7-6. But in the second half he began to assert his will. Bethea rushed for 112 yards in the final two quarters, including a string of three straight long gains to lead the Pumas on their game-winning touchdown drive.
"Broadneck had a great defense - their linebackers were making plays we hadn't seen before, so we had to step up our games," Bethea said. "We were ready to pound and play Wise football. And if they need someone to pound, then I said I could do it - I can be a pounder."
Bethea had success pounding away, but he is not a typical bruiser ala Jerome Bettis. Parrish likens him to another former Notre Dame runner, Eric Penick , a 6-1, 195-pounder who starred in the 1970s.
"I'm going old school with this one - Penick was tall like Uriah and he was more of a glider," Parrish said. "He was a very patient runner who would see the holes and just glide right through them."
Parrish meant the comparison to be a compliment, but there were problems with Bethea's running style. Sometimes his patience backfired, like in the state championship game against Urbana when Bethea was held under 4.0 yards per carry for the first time all year.
Urbana's defense swarmed him while he waited for his blocks to develop. Instead of taking on a linebacker head on and then busting out an ankle-breaking move, Bethea was tentative.
"We want him to be more assertive - to create his own running lanes," Parrish said. "And while he's fast enough, he doesn't wow you with his speed. He's working on that right now."
Bethea gobbles up constructive criticism. Just like in his sophomore year, when he knew he had to get stronger, Bethea knows what he needs to become an elite 'back.
"Day in, day out I'm in the weight room, on the track and running hills," said Bethea, who is projected to be a Division-I recruit (he already has a lot of early interest, according to Parrish). "That's what it's all about - hard work."
That drive and desire has been evident since Bethea first arrived at Wise High. It impressed Parrish enough to bring him up to varsity his sophomore year. But back then Bethea was just an understudy, an underclassman with a secondary role. Last year he stepped forward, taking the reigns and anchoring the backfield along with two other capable runners.
Next year, however, will be Bethea's most challenging test yet. Not only will he be the feature runner, but he's expected to lead a Pumas squad that has gone to back-to-back state finals.
"Uriah is a leader already - he pushes kids and he's a vocal presence -- and we're looking for him to continue that," Parrish said. "We expect big things out of him next year."
Bethea, for his part, isn't backing down.
"It's my turn now," he said. "I'm the leader of this team -- the motivator. Next year I'm going for 2,000 yards, a college scholarship and a state championship. I want it bad."