East Mecklenburg running back Khamal Howard is the last Eagles player to arrive at the practice field Tuesday afternoon.
He jogs down a hill, stuffing his No. 21 jersey in his pants with one hand, pulling his helmet over his head with the other. At 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, he has thickly muscled legs and powerful arms.
A junior, Howard certainly looks like a guy who could reach 2,000 yards rushing, a goal Eagles coach Barry Shuford set for him this season.
“I think he’s the best running back in the state,” said East Mecklenburg junior quarterback Khalil Gilliam, whose team visits Observer Sweet 16 No. 6 South Mecklenburg Friday. “He doesn’t go down in the first two hits. Just look at him. That boy’s big. I can’t bring him down.”
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As a sophomore, Howard rushed 171 times for 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns. He averaged more than 6 yards per carry and was named offensive player of the year in the Southwestern 4A conference, which has sent 19 teams to N.C. Western Regional championship games since 2000.
“Man, that was crazy,” Howard, 16, said of being named player of the year. “At the time, I thought it was pretty good, but (opponents) are going to want my head now.”
To get ready for this season, Howard dedicated himself to the weight room, where he put on 10 pounds and bench-pressed 300 pounds in the spring. He also spent hours in his front yard doing agility drills.
Last week, when East Mecklenburg kicked off the 2016 season, Howard ran 32 times for 256 yards and four touchdowns in a 63-20 win against Berry. The Eagles tied a school-record for points, and Howard had one of the best rushing performances in school history - up there with Bryson Collins’ 294-yard night in 2014 and the 277 Carlos Horton had in a game in 1992.
“He runs hard,” said first-year Berry coach Travis Witherspoon. “It doesn’t hurt that the offensive line is pretty big across the front. He’s a good, tough, physical runner. He’s got good balance and when it comes down to the way he plays, quite frankly he’s got the acceleration to turn a short play into a big one.”
East Mecklenburg coach Shuford marvels at Howard’s durability and strength.
“He’s hard to bring down,” Shuford said. “I remember he had one run against South Mecklenburg last year that was phenomenal. He broke seven tackles and scored from 20 yards out. ...He’s fast enough to break runs, but he will run over you if you’re in his way.”
Shuford said Howard has played a major role in the turnaround at East Mecklenburg.
When Shuford was hired before the 2014 season, East Mecklenburg had experienced four straight losing seasons.
Shuford started seven freshmen his first season, including Howard and Gilliam, the quarterback. The Eagles went 2-9 and allowed 36 points per game. When Howard emerged as a star in 2015, East Mecklenburg went 6-6 and reached the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
“We had a great group of freshmen when I came in,” Shuford said. “We took our lumps, but we saw down the road it would be OK.”
Those seven freshmen are now seasoned juniors and part of a 2016 team that returned 17 starters. Shuford says his team’s best days -- and Howard’s best games -- are ahead of them, but he also believes the Eagles can be pretty good this season.
And in Howard, Shuford believes he’s a bona-fide star.
“I think he should be the best running back in Charlotte,” Shuford said. “That’s the way we look at it. Everybody knows he’s getting the football and everybody’s out to stop him.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr