FLORENCE — Before the 2019 season started, Mars Hill coach Darrell Higgins knew his running backs needed to get bigger and stronger.
With last year’s top back, Colt Smith, having graduated, current juniors Peyton Higgins, Justus McDaniel and Hunter Kilpatrick had to add muscle and be ready for a lot more carries.
McDaniel is now up to 180 pounds and Higgins — the coach’s son — is at 170. Kilpatrick lifted weights and drank protein shakes in the offseason to get up to 145, then got mononucleosis early in the season, lost the 10 to 12 pounds he’d put on, and had to start over.
“I’ve been working hard to get it back,” said Kilpatrick, who has returned to 145 pounds and has no ill effects from his prior illness.
Call it a little mid-season adversity for a running back group that otherwise hasn’t had much.
Higgins has rushed for more than 1,400 yards, McDaniel for more than 1,200 and Kilpatrick — despite missing three games — for 641 rushing years as Mars Hill has rolled to a 13-0 record entering Friday’s Class 1A state semifinal game at Pickens County (11-2).
As much as they carry the ball in Mars Hill’s Wing-T offense, Higgins, McDaniel and Kilpatrick embody perhaps the most obvious strength on a Panthers team that doesn’t have a glaring weakness.
The three share a lot of skills but are slightly different.
McDaniel is the biggest and maybe the most likely to run through contact. Kilpatrick prides himself moving well side to side to avoid tacklers. Higgins offers a mix of those approaches.
“I know I can trust the guys beside me,” Kilpatrick said. “What gives me confidence also is we just make a lot of big plays, and that can really change a game.”
McDaniel did that last week, rushing 18 times for 177 yards and three touchdowns in the Panthers 42-21 quarterfinal win over previously undefeated Decatur Heritage.
“We talked about before the game playing with an all-out effort for 48 minutes, four quarters,” McDaniel said. “My line was just making holes for me, and I was getting through there. I just kept running hard and trying to break tackles.”
“He was getting stronger as the game went on, which is something he really worked on,” Darrell Higgins said of McDaniel.
Peyton Higgins pointed out the team has only five seniors, and two of them didn’t play before this year.
“Much is expected from us,” he said.
As good as these running backs are, they no doubt benefit from an offensive line that simply overmatches most defensive lines with its size and strength.
Logan McInnish, Landon Morris, Eli Kirchharr, Brandon Rippey and Mack McCluskey form the starting offensive line, left to right, with Cooper Howton playing tight end.
The tackles, McInnish (6-5, 319 pounds) and McCluskey (6-4, 290), are particularly problematic match-ups.
Pickens County, featuring Alabama commit Jah-Marien Latham at defensive end and offensive tackle, is as well equipped to handle Mars Hill’s line as any opponent all season.
“No matter how good the other team is, they expect they’re going to make holes and open up some lanes for these guys to run through,” Darrell Higgins said of his offensive linemen.
It’s not uncommon for one of the backs to find such a gap in the defense.
“(It) makes the game a lot more fun when they take care of those guys on the inside and get us to the edge, where we like it,” Peyton Higgins said.
Aiden Kennedy (272 yards) and Sam Gooch (261) have contributed to the running game and are among a staggering 11 Panthers who have rushed for at least 100 yards this year. The team has totaled 4,822 rushing yards.
The running game — combined with passing game efforts from players such as quarterback Griffin Hanson and receiver Walker White — has helped Mars Hill average 53 points per game.
Mars Hill probably won’t need to score 53.8 points to win Friday’s game, but Higgins can feel good knowing the new leaders of this offense have maintained the high standard set during last year’s state championship season.
“We knew it was going to be our time for people to follow us and follow our lead,” Peyton Higgins said. “We don’t want to let 'em down.”