By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
It’s like having a fancy sports car and a tank; One as reliable as a pump shotgun, the other a rifle capable of striking from long range. Gabe Blair and Michael Nelson provide the North Laurel offense with two effective weapons in the backfield.
“It’s hard for a defense to prepare for that. You have to get ready for someone to run over top of you. You start cheating on that and here comes Michael,” North Laurel coach Chris Larkey said.
Blair and Nelson have both rushed for over 1,000 yards this season. Blair has bulled for 1,058 yards on 174 carries. Nelson has bolted for 1,250 yards on 136 carries.
Blair averages about six yards per carry. His role is to pound the defense and keep the ball moving. Blair said he probably inflicts as many hits on offense as he does in his other role as a linebacker. It doesn’t matter to him who carries the ball more.
“I’m fine as long as we get the yards we need and are scoring touchdowns. That’s all that matters,” Blair said.
While the defense tries to strengthen the middle to stop Blair, they also have to be aware of Nelson. Leave Nelson an opening and you will not catch him.
“It makes it difficult for a defense to have to watch both like that,” Larkey said.
Nelson averages more than nine yards per carry with the speed to outrun everyone once he gets ahead of the defense. But while he is racing down the field ahead of tacklers he might not be thinking what you would expect.
“I’m thinking if I let this guy catch me my dad is going to kill me,” Nelson said.
It was Blair that led the team last season with 1,574 yards. He also carried the ball a bruising 239 times with Nelson just getting 100 carries in 2010. The balance this season has worked well for North Laurel.
“Now Gabe doesn’t have to run it every single time. They usually run it about the same number of times. They really complement each other,” Larkey said.
Larkey also thinks both have become better runners since last season.
“They have just gotten older and wiser and learned to run better. Obviously the linemen have gotten better,” Larkey said.
The linemen opening holes for the Jaguars’ runners include Hunter Gilpin, Zach Abner, Miles Sherman, Nick Herrmann, Isidro Acosta, and Austin Baker.
“Those six guys have worked really hard at getting better,” Larkey said.
Acosta is the only senior on an offensive line that entered the season young and green.
“They are all basically first-year starters,” Larkey said. “They are still learning. They are still a bunch of young kids out there.”
Their best game may have come last week when the Jaguars rushed for over 400 yards at Lincoln County. Nelson finished with 210 yards and Blair 168.
When asked about the season, the first thing Nelson mentions is not what he has done, but what he didn’t do.
“I would like to have back a few games where I didn’t do very well, like Wayne County. I think I could have done better against Madison Southern,” Nelson said.
The two games have little in common other than a North Laurel loss. Wayne County held Nelson to 69 yards. It was also the only game this season he has been kept out of the end zone. He did rush for 141 yards against Pulaski County, but the Jaguars saw a 21-0 lead crumble.
“My favorite play was when I got flipped against Pulaski and I liked my touchdown catch because I don’t get to do that very much,” he said.
The flip came late in the game when Nelson said he wanted to make something happen. He tried to leap over two defenders.
“That didn’t work out,” he said.
The touchdown catch came on a throw from Hagen Hodges against South Laurel.
Both runners have six games over 100 yards. Blair’s high was 176 against South Laurel. Although Blair has fewer carries this season, he has played through injury. A separated AC joint (shoulder) has been an issue all season, but has not slowed him down. Blair hasn’t even scheduled a doctor visit yet.
For Blair, it’s all part of what he considers a good season.
“I think I have (had a good season). We’ve had a winning season,” Blair said.
The season continues next Friday when the Jaguars travel to Whitley County for their first playoff game since 2004.