Linganore coach Rick Conner remembers the first time he saw Joe Riddle run. It was during a preseason jayvee scrimmage, which Conner was scouting to gauge who might replace the 30-plus seniors graduating from his 2009 squad.
"So he gets a handoff on the first carry and he takes it to the house - 70 yards," Conner said. "Then he does it again, only this time it's 80 yards. Every scrimmage, same thing. We knew we had something."
Conner might have brought Riddle up to varsity right then, but he had two veterans ahead of him on the depth chart.
Some things are worth the wait. After two seasons on jayvee, the junior tailback wowed teammates, coaches and adversaries alike last season with a pair of wheels that could rival Lance Armstrong on a bike. Despite sharing carries with senior Dwayne Randall, Riddle racked up close to 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging over 7.0 yards per carry.
"All you need is to open up a little hole for him and he'll explode right through it," said senior lineman Kyle Warholic, who blocked for Riddle last season. "When we needed a big play, he made it."
There was the game against Winters Mill, when Riddle juked out star linebacker Mike Jones and flew down the sideline, untouched for 50 yards. There was the game against Middletown, one of the stingiest defenses in the conference, when he busted through for 180 yards and two touchdowns. There was the game against Tuscarora, when he ran a quick hitter and just exploded through the middle for 60 yards. There was the game against Walkersville, when he ripped off 200 yards, including a handful of 30-yard gains.
And don't forgot about Westminster, where he had the longest run of the season. On Linganore's first play from their own 20-yard line, Riddle ran off-tackle, cut back to the middle, accelerated by the linebackers, cut back again and then rocketed past the secondary for an eye-popping touchdown.
"Once I get in the open field," Riddle said, "I just let my speed take over. It seems like no one can catch me."
"He can absolutely fly. He'd get loose every game -- a one-play touchdown guy."
Such is the speed of the next big thing in the Monacacy Valley Athletic League.
Not even the supposed fastest man in the conference could catch him. At a recent track invitational, Riddle competed in the 55-meter dash against Walkersville speedster Jose Depadua, who has been known to clock in with 4.4 40-yard dash times. But at the meet, Riddle edged Depadua by a tenth of a second, 6.77 to 6.78.
"I've been running track for three years and I've worked real hard with the track coach," Riddle said. "And Coach Conner is great with helping guys turn track speed into football speed. This year it just all came together for me."
Plenty of guys can run fast. But they're normally 5-foot-7 pipsqueaks who earn track scholarships. If they do put on the pads, they usually specialize in kick returns or deep pass plays. Riddle, on the other hand, is a 6-foot-1, 200-pound bruiser who can bench press 300 pounds and squat 400. Know how many 6-foot-plus athletes with muscles rippling up and down their arms can run a 4.4 40-yard dash? In this state, you can count them on one hand.
"He's a warrior," Conner said. "He's all muscle - no body fat at all. He's one of the hardest workers we have."
Fair or not, Riddle's size and speed have Lancers fans recalling the great runners of Linganore's past. Some mention John Seymour (All-State, 1992); others recall Jerit Siedor (All-State, 1995); and still others point to Pat Balderson or Kevin Myers.
Conner? He thinks Riddle is Matt Castor (All-State, 2004, Towson University) with hyper drive.
"They were both tough kids, but Joe's a little bigger, a little faster and has a little more shake-and-bake than Matt had," Conner said. "Trust me, this kid is going to play Division-I football somewhere."
Warholic is even more effusive in his praise then Conner. No slight on Castor, but the Linganore lineman thinks Riddle could eventually be as good as the greatest runner in Lancers' history: 4-star Penn State recruit Zach Zwinak.
"He doesn't have Zach's size, but he's definitely faster," Warholic said. "He's got the height, the weight, the moves and he's in the 4.4 [40-yard dash] range. He's a flashy 'back -- definitely a special player."
Whether he's special enough to go to a school like Penn State remains to be seen. But Conner said Division-I coaches have been clamoring over his tape. An early offer could be forthcoming.
But before we crown him King Riddle, let's temper the hype just a bit. Speed and strength alone do not make a great 'back. Riddle openly admits there are still areas he must improve this offseason.
"I have work on my vision a little more; I have to be able to anticipate where the holes open up," Riddle said. "And I can always get a little bigger and stronger, too. You never stop working to get better."
Conner fully expects Riddle to iron out any kinks. He's primed for a breakout in 2011, a la Zwinak in his senior year.
Last year Riddle worked in a rotation, but next year he figures to get the king's ransom of the carries. On top of that, Conner admits he will unleash Riddle's full potential. Most Linganore backfields are built on hard, between-the-tackles running, but there might be a new flare to that tried-and-true system next fall.
"We know he can run it up the middle, but we'll line him up in the slot, we'll have him catch passes out of the backfield and we'll send him in motion," Conner said. "We're going to take advantage of everything he can do. He's going to be a great player."
Zach Zwinak? Matt Castor? Heck, we might have another Reggie Bush on our hands.