By Cam Huffman
Westside High School head coach Darren Thomas knew he had something special in sophomore tailback Mike Mullens. It just took some time for everybody else to find out.
Thomas was confident that once Mullens got on the field, his play would turn some heads. But early on, the only thing Mullens was turning was his ankle.
In the season opener against Liberty, Mullens suffered a high-ankle sprain early in the game, and he played only the first quarter, gaining 49 yards on four carries as his team fell 31-30. He was sidelined again the next week, only able to stand and watch as his team defeated rival Wyoming East 22-20.
Back for the third week against Man, Mullens finally got to show off, and he rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. He scored on a pair of 2-point conversions, and the Renegades won 44-20.
That was just the start. Against Independence, Mullens had 137 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just two carries, and even against then-Class AA No. 1 Scott, he topped the 100-yard mark and scored on a 52-yard touchdown run.
Still overshadowed some by another Renegades sophomore, talented two-way quarterback Justin Cogar, Mullens had his biggest night last Friday against Tug Valley when he was a part of a 34-point second-half explosion.
He ended the game with 246 yards and four touchdowns on just 19 carries, earning Register-Herald Player of the Week honors.
“He just adds speed to our backfield,” said Westside head coach Darren Thomas. “He’s a sophomore, and he worked in the weight room all winter. He’s just a good tailback for us. He runs hard. He’s strong. He’s not that big a kid, but he adds a lot to our running game.”
Which also adds a lot to the Renegade offense.
“We have a pretty good quarterback, we think, so we’re able to throw the ball some,” said Thomas. “With Mike being 100 percent, that gives us that outside running. We run a lot of option with him and a lot of off tackle stuff. When he’s 100 percent, he gives us that burst of speed we’ll need.”
Thomas said Mullens still has a little soreness in his ankle from time to time, but it didn’t show on Friday.
The Westside staff has seen the value of having the 165-pound Mullens in the lineup, and it’s doing its best to keep him there. Unlike many of the biggest stars across the state, Mullens plays only on offense — aside from returning kickoffs, a spot where he hasn’t had to exhaust much energy with opponents usually kicking in another direction.
“Right now, he only goes one way, and that cuts down a lot of wear and tear on your body, especially as a sophomore,” said Thomas. “When you’re a 15- or 16-year-old kid, playing one way gives you a lot of energy going down the stretch.”
Thomas expects he’ll eventually need Mullens, one of his top athletes, on defense, as well, but an offseason of work should get him ready for the assignment.
“He’s going to be stronger,” said Thomas. “He likes the weight room, and he’ll live in it during the winter. I don’t know how much bigger he’ll get, but he’ll work. So the potential’s there. He’s gifted with something that’s hard to teach, and that’s speed.”
Westside, though, isn’t worried about the distant future. It’s concentrating on 2012, and the Renegades have some important games ahead. Westside (4-3) is tied for the No. 15 spot in Class AA this week, in perfect position at reaching its biggest goal, despite a difficult early schedule.
“We felt going in that we just wanted a chance to make the playoffs, and right now we do,” said Thomas. “We knew with a young team we would take some lumps. We’re just looking for consistency.
“When you get in the playoffs, you better be ready to play some of the toughest teams in the state. We just felt like we needed to up our schedule, and we figure down the road that will pay off for us.”
Another difficult test stands ahead this Friday with Class AA No. 5 Bluefield (5-1) coming to Clear Fork.
“Bluefield’s awful good, but we want to measure up and see where we stand,” said Thomas. “We want to be in their category each year — be a threat to make the playoffs and a consistent football team.”
With Mullens in the backfield for the next two seasons, the Renegades will certainly have a head start.