Declaring someone or something "The Greatest" always leaves room for debate, unless you're referring to Muhammad Ali or the Beatles. But in the 47-year history of the Peninsula District, it's hard to imagine any group of running backs being better than the Class of 2008.
Phoebus' Shawne Alston rushed for 2,278 yards and 34 touchdowns. His buddy, Hampton's Tron Martinez, was next with 1,706 yards and 27 TDs. And their buddy, Bethel's Jontel Evans, ran for 825 yards in only eight games.
Today, Alston is the starting back at West Virginia, and Martinez was expected to be at Marshall until undergoing off-season knee surgery. Evans is a starter at Virginia … as a point guard in basketball. Few doubt he could have signed with a major program in football.
The 2008 class also included Denbigh's Jodey McNeil, who ran for 1,186 yards; Gloucester's Ray Harris, who was listed at quarterback but ran for 1,273 yards on 182 carries; and Menchville sophomore Clifton Richardson, who is now a sophomore at U.Va.
Hard to beat that group.
But the Class of 2012 is pretty good, too. How good? Consider that the sixth-leading returning rusher is a rising junior who has committed to Virginia Tech.
"There are some very, very good running backs returning in the district," Woodside coach Danny Dodson said. "This is a very impressive group."
The top returning rusher is Phoebus' Tony Pittman, who ran for 1,577 yards and 17 touchdowns in 12 games. Though he's smaller, his style is similar to Alston. Next is Kecoughtan's Trenton Cannon, who gained 1,159 yards in nine games.
Warwick's Cardon Johnson rushed for 1,134 yards as a junior, which gives him a two-year total of 2,369. Heritage's Khalid Abdullah finished with 927, and Woodside's Jay'Quan Lassiter finished with 667 yards and eight touchdowns. Hampton's Marshawn Williams gained 650 on only 100 carries as a sophomore.
"As an entire group, they fit in toward the top," Hampton coach Mike Smith said. "The kid from Heritage and the kid from Warwick, they both have really good speed and moves. The kid from Kecoughtan is very good.
"And the kid from Phoebus, he'll just hammer you. He's an excellent back and very durable."
Williams has such an upside that Virginia Tech, which has three former backs in the NFL, offered a scholarship after his sophomore year. (He accepted). At 5-11 and 220 pounds, he's strong enough to play fullback but also has the speed to get on the edge.
"He's probably a combination of people we've had before," Smith said when asked for a comparison. "Maybe Darryl Smith, Alex Hill and Tron Martinez. He's a combination of them all: big, strong and quick."
Pittman also fits that description. He rushed for 812 of his yards during Phoebus' five-game playoff run. In a 24-20 win over Norcom in the Eastern Region final, he carried 42 times for 252 yards. The Phantoms as a team took 56 snaps and produced 292 yards.
"He can be a finesse back or he can be a power back," Phantoms coach Stan Sexton said. "I'd like to see him go back more to his early style of last year, that power runner he was. That Shawne Alston type. But it's such a wear and tear on those guys.
"I like the fact that his vision is developing and is better than it was last year. But I don't want him getting out of being a power runner."
Cannon was a surprise hit last fall. In his first varsity carry, he ran 64 yards for a touchdown. He rushed for 159 yards against Churchland in his debut and never slowed down.
"He's not a big back who will run you over," Kecoughtan coach Alonzo Coley said of Cannon, who goes 5-11, 175. "He's a shifty back who wants to get outside. We'll use that."
Johnson made a name for himself by rushing for 1,235 yards as a sophomore after transferring from Menchville. He's gained some size since then (currently listed at 5-11, 200) and is stronger between the tackles.
"He's worked extra hard in getting better and studying the game," Warwick coach Juan Jackson said.
Abdullah, who rushed for 199 yards as a sophomore, was another surprise in 2011. His 208 carries were second only to Pittman's 273 in the Peninsula District. Lassiter averaged 6.1 yards per carry.
So how do they see each other?
"Cardon and I go back a long ways," Abdullah said. "He's a great back. He has good speed, good vision, good moves. Marshawn, he's got good strength and power. Trent has good vision and decent speed. And Tony Pittman, you know he's got the size and strength. There's a lot of competition at my position."
"The dude from Heritage, he's nice," Cannon said. "He's one of the nicest running backs in the PD. Everybody's saying it's going to be a competition between me and Pittman this year. They're saying he'll do better than me this year, but I don't think that's possible. Not to sound cocky or anything."
The top six returning rushers in the Peninsula District:
Tony Pittman, Phoebus;273;1,577;17
Trenton Cannon, Kecoughtan;158;1,159;12
Cardon Johnson, Warwick;171;1,134;12
Khalid Abdullah, Heritage;208;927;5
Jay'Quan Lassiter, Woodside;110;667;8