In almost two decades coaching high school football at Beall High and later Mountain Ridge High, Randy DeVore has never had a Division-I player on his roster. Of course, Western Maryland isn't exactly teeming with elite talent, but one would think DeVore would have had at least one.
"Nope," DeVore said. "Not even one."
But that could just change this year. DeVore has a rising senior running back who might just be the best talent Western Maryland has seen in years.
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"I've been around here for 18 years and I've never seen a kid with his kind of ability before," DeVore said of his prized possession. "I really think he has a good shot at playing Division I football or at least I-AA. I feel very confident about that."
So just who is this teenage prodigy? Who is this dynamite talent who could potentially send recruiters up through the mountains of Western Maryland to the most remote part of the state?
His name is Jarrod Harper, and if you didn't know his name before, you'll remember it now. Harper is a 6-foot, 200-pound bulldozer who combines 4.5 40-yard dash speed (he was laser timed at a combine) with a 300-pound bench press. He's built with the upper-body brawniness of Brandon Jacobs and the lower-body thickness of Adrian Peterson.
"Jarrod is just a big, strong guy - every bit of six feet and 200 pounds," said his lead blocker and backfield mate, Drew Winters. "He's real hard to bring down, and he's got that top-end speed, too. He's explosive."
Harper has made his name at running back, but he might be an even better defensive back. Last year he rushed for an area-high 1,433 yards and 18 touchdowns, but he also tallied nine - count 'em, nine - interceptions.
"This year, with the way I worked in the offseason, my coaches and my dad told me I could pretty much do whatever I wanted to on the field," Harper said. "I took that to heart and I went out and performed."
In reality, no one should have been surprised. That is, no one who paid attention. Harper is a football lifer who starred on his youth-league teams, showing off that rare speed-power combination in elementary school.
"Being in the community, I saw him play early," DeVore said. "He was always a step or two ahead of everyone else."
But while the talent was evident, Harper still needed to develop the work ethic. He came to Mountain Ridge with a bit of excess baby fat, which didn't hamper him in Pop Warner ball but would be a problem against varsity defenses.
But then the Mountain Ridge coaches got a hold of him. They dragged him through two-a-days, made sure his butt was in the weight room and even suggested track. Harper was an obedient pupil, and by the start of his junior year he looked like a heavyweight boxer instead of a mere heavyweight.
Simply put, he was primed for a breakout.
"I lifted all offseason so I could take a pounding, I built up my legs to run between the tackles and I ran track to get even faster," Harper said. "Before I was going down after one hit and I couldn't break away. Now I can run between the tackles, and when I get out in the open field no one can catch me."
It didn't take long for Harper to make an impact. In his first game against Jefferson High last year, he ran for 250 yards and five touchdowns in a 50-28 Mountain Ridge victory.
An anomaly? Hardly. Harper followed up with three straight 100-yard games, including another 200-yarder against Hampshire in Week 4.
"After those first couple of games, people started to open their eyes," DeVore said. "People didn't expect it, but we started to realize that all that work he put in was paying off."
Harper was no longer the plodding runner who came in as a freshman. Now, he was a slasher who could accelerate on a dime. Now, he was an intimidator who could carry a linebacker 5 yards on his back. Now, he was a safety-corner who could deliver a hit and pick off a pass.
"His numbers speak for themselves," Winters said. "He's one of the best players I've seen."
If there was a moment that defined Harper, it came in that scintillating performance against Hampshire. Mountain Ridge was having an unexpectedly difficult time with the lowly West Virginia school, and at one point they trailed 9-7 in the third quarter.
After losing the lead, the Miners' wishbone offense did start to move. But they faced a fourth-and-1 inside the Hampshire red zone.
Naturally, they handed off to Harper, who was immediately stuffed at the line. But Harper shrugged off the tackles, spun away, reversed field and ran around the opposite end for a touchdown.
"It was a do-or-die situation and he came through with an unbelievable run," DeVore said. "He's something special."
But after that early-season boon, everyone knew about Jarrod Harper. By the end of the year, defenses started game-planning specifically for him, sending waves of linebackers and safeties in his direction. In the postseason, Harper failed to produce against either Northern or Fort Hill.
That's bound to continue in 2011 unless Harper raises his game.
"Next year, everyone is going to be looking to stop him, and he has to take it up a notch," DeVore said. "We expect him to be even stronger and faster then he is now. If he can do that the sky is the limit."
But just how high is Harper's sky? Is it high enough to earn that elusive Division-I scholarship?
That remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: while Harper carved up the Western Maryland defenses, he'll need to prove himself at combines and against stiffer competition to reach college football's elite.
So far, Harper is doing his best. He's currently running track in hopes of lowering his 40 time, and he's in the weight room every day after practice. Better yet, Harper has already been to a number of camps, including those at Rutgers and West Virginia, his dream school.
"West Virginia has been my favorite school since I was little. I'd like nothing better than to go there on a football scholarship," Harper said. "I have the talent to get there, and I refuse to settle for second best. I have confidence in myself."