High School Sports

Trio of Lexington running backs among Kentucky's best

Henry Clay's Joquise Buford cut to avoid Evan Shaw of crosstown rival Lafayette. Buford rushed for 1,129 of his 1,652 yards against the four other Lexington public high schools.
Henry Clay's Joquise Buford cut to avoid Evan Shaw of crosstown rival Lafayette. Buford rushed for 1,129 of his 1,652 yards against the four other Lexington public high schools. Herald-Leader

In this pass-happy age of football, let's not overlook the impact of the running game, especially in Lexington high school circles.

Three players who barely rated a mention in the city last season have emerged as three of the top running backs in the state this year.

Henry Clay junior Joquise Buford is the leading rusher in Class 6A, Lexington Catholic junior Jaylen Jones is among the leaders in 4A, and Lexington Christian senior Nick Whitman is tops in 2A.

They have combined to rush for almost 5,000 yards and 70 touchdowns this fall.

With the playoffs beginning this week, they hope to keep running for a while.

Joquise Buford

Henry Clay came into this season with a question mark at running back. The Blue Devils had to replace Elijah Bell, who rushed for 2,121 yards and 26 TDs, and Davion "DJ" Jackson, who had 1,223 yards and 13 TDs last year.

The 5-foot-9, 160-pound Buford was quick (with 4.47 speed) to provide an answer.

Coach Sam Simpson saw glimpses of Buford's potential last year. Buford had only 13 carries in 2013, but he had a couple of star bursts: he ran for 108 yards on just four carries against Clark County, and he had a 94-yard scoring run against Madison Central.

"Those were crazy, off-the-chart things, but we attributed some of it to Joquise playing against backups," Simpson said.

But Buford has proven himself as a front-line player this year. He's rushed for 1,652 yards and 30 touchdowns in nine games. He's averaged 11 yards a carry and developed toughness to go with his speed.

"Early on it was about not getting touched and running to the outside," he said. "Now it's find the seams and go."

Buford learned to be more physical thanks in part to a practice drill in which he has three blockers in front of him, and he has to go against three defensive linemen, two linebackers and a safety. "You just run heads up and fight for yards. That's helped me change my game plan."

Buford has been at his best against city rivals. In Henry Clay's sweep of Bryan Station, Lafayette, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Tates Creek, Buford totaled 1,129 yards and 26 touchdowns. His season highs came against Bryan Station when he had 334 yards and eight TDs.

He's quick to credit his offensive line, which is big, strong and experienced, and running back sidekick Austin Bledsoe. "I couldn't do it without them," he said.

Simpson has seen Buford become an all-around back, not just a burner, and a big reason the Blue Devils are 7-2 and ranked ninth in the state.

"Joquise isn't just fast, he can run inside and he can block," Simpson said. "I've been a little surprised by what he's done this year, but at the same time, I knew he had a lot of talent."

Jaylen Jones

Jones was practicing running pass routes in February 2013, when he heard a "pop." He had torn his right Achilles tendon. He spent a month in a cast, a few more weeks in a boot, then rehabbed diligently to get back on the field.

By July of that year, he was running again and looking forward to his sophomore season at Lexington Catholic.

But not for long.

"Two weeks later, I was in a receiver stance and exploded off my back foot. I heard a 'pop' and fell to the ground. It was my left Achilles.

"I was a lot more angry about it the second time."

Nobody would have blamed Jones if he felt star-crossed about his relationship with football.

But he didn't. He dedicated himself to coming back even stronger, and his hard work has paid off. He has rushed for 1,405 yards and 14 touchdowns in helping the Knights to a 7-3 record heading into the Class 4A playoffs.

Jones benefits from being part of a balanced attack, with Reese Ryan passing for more than 2,100 yards and 23 TDs, and a veteran offensive line opening holes.

Lexington Catholic Coach Mark Perry has seen Jones' confidence grow as he's put his injuries behind him.

"Early on you could see him hold back a little from sprinting full speed because in the back of his mind maybe there was a little doubt," Perry said. "But now he's fast and explosive again, finishing every play full speed. There's no hesitation anymore."

A 6-foot-1 200-pounder, Jones can grind out the tough yards or, with his 4.6 speed, get to the edges. His best games have been against top-20 competition: 184 yards against Boyle County, 181 against Bowling Green, 175 against Lafayette and 174 against Bryan Station.

"Jaylen just loves to play football," Perry said. "He's an aggressive back, an old-school back, who seeks contact. If there's a safety in front of him, he doesn't mind lowering his shoulder."

After being sidelined for more than a year by Achilles injuries, Jones came into this season not thinking about how many yards and TDs he could accumulate.

"When the season started I only had two thoughts: I just wanted to win, and I just wanted to stay healthy. Stats are just extra. They don't matter. It's all about winning and staying healthy."

Nick Whitman

Whitman remembers vividly when his junior season ended. In the third quarter of the third game of the year against Lincoln County, he ran up the middle. A defender held him up, another tackler pushed him backward. "At first I thought I had a sprained ankle," Whitman said. "I got up and tried to walk it off."

He couldn't. He had a broken fibula. He underwent surgery and had a plate and nine screws inserted in his leg. He watched the rest of the season from the sidelines.

To say he's come back strong this year would be an understatement.

The 6-2 215-pounder is a beast on both sides of the ball. He leads LCA's defense in tackles, and the offense with 1,789 yards rushing and 26 TDs.

Whitman has been most impressive in district games: 41 carries for 317 yards and six TDs against Danville, 40 carries for 289 yards and five TDs against Middlesboro, and 25 carries for 240 yards and three TDs against Somerset.

LCA Coach Ethan Atchley said when the season began, he didn't envision Whitman being such a workhorse. But once he saw how effective Whitman could be behind the Eagles' veteran offensive line, he knew it was a winning strategy.

"My mentors always said do what works for your team," he said. "We figured out pretty early that it would be to our advantage to feed Nick the ball a lot."

Atchley thinks it's wrong to characterize Whitman as simply a power back. "He's got great vision and he's got some speed, too."

Whitman describes himself as a "downhill runner. I don't use a whole lot of jukes, and I'm not the fastest guy. But I cut pretty hard, and I'm a pretty hard runner."

And a resilient runner capable of 40 carries a game.

"It's a lot of work," he said. "But I do enjoy it. I love running the ball. But I have to play defense, too, so sometimes I get pretty exhausted in the second half."

Whitman, who's undecided on whether he'll play college football, is ready to carry his team into the postseason.

"This is what we've been playing for all year," he said. "This is what we've been getting ready for all year, to make a run in the playoffs."