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Great Backs Are Back, and in a Big Way

These are freakish times in high school football, and it’s not even Halloween yet.

Most scary is the expanding list of outstanding running backs, with 200-, 300- and 400-yard rushing performances becoming commonplace.

Just look at what sophomore Ryan Bass of Corona Centennial is accomplishing. He gets promoted from the junior varsity and in his varsity debut rushes for 401 yards against Rancho Cucamonga. In three games, he has 888 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Then there’s junior Aaron Harris of Baldwin Park. He has scored 15 touchdowns in his last three games.

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With so many talented ball-carriers, no credible sportswriter can say, without a doubt, who is the best.

Is it Stafon Johnson of Los Angeles Dorsey? He’s the tailback Pete Carroll wants at USC. Is it C.J. Gable of Sylmar? He’s averaging 12.4 yards per carry. Is it Toby Gerhart of Norco? He’s 1,058 yards shy of becoming the leading rusher in state history.

Is it Marc Tyler of Westlake Village Oaks Christian? His coach, Bill Redell, said Tyler is as good as Russell White, one of the Southland’s best backs of the 1980s. Is it Ken Ashley of Venice? He has six runs of 60 yards or longer.

Is it Rodney Glass of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame? He has rushed for more than 100 yards in four of five games. Is it Chane Moline of Mission Viejo? Ask any linebacker what it’s like trying to tackle the 230-pound Moline. Is it Shane Vereen of Valencia? He’s averaging 9.9 yards per carry and 18.2 yards per catch. Is it P.J. Vallier of Mission Viejo Trabuco Hills? He leads the Southland with 1,217 yards.

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Then there are the super sophomores. Besides Bass, Moorpark’s Darrell Scott has gained 100 or more yards in four of five games. And Milton Knox of Lake Balboa Birmingham is projected as a future college standout. Last week, in his duel against Dorsey’s Johnson, Knox rushed for 115 yards and scored two touchdowns and caught four passes for 96 yards.

“I think the best one is Johnson,” Birmingham Coach Ed Croson said. “He’s a thick, tough guy. But I wouldn’t trade anyone for Knox. He’s just 15 and makes plays.”

The dilemma for outsiders trying to figure out who’s No. 1 is that each coach believes his player is the best.

“I think you’ve got to love the one you’re with, so it’s Ken Ashley,” Venice Coach Angelo Gasca said.

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Gasca, though, is convinced this season is all about the running backs.

“A couple years ago, there were a lot of good quarterbacks,” he said. “Now it seems there are a lot of running backs. The thing that’s kind of amazing is they’re powerful runners. They’re not just breakaway backs. They’ll run by you, through you, away from you. And they can catch the ball.”

Two developments have helped pave the way for the running backs. Schools are copying plays from Urban Meyer, Florida’s first-year coach whose shotgun formation at Utah produced a wide-open attack. And the influence of USC’s versatile Reggie Bush can’t be dismissed. Coaches are using single-back formations and creating mismatches and big-play opportunities.

Vereen, in particular, has benefited from his Bush-like movements on the field. Lining up as a receiver, the junior running back has been turning short passes into long touchdowns, the latest an 87-yarder last week against unbeaten Notre Dame.

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Gable hasn’t faced the toughest opposition this season, but his coach at Sylmar, London Woodfin, said there isn’t a “better breakaway running back around.”

“Everybody knows Sylmar is a running team, so they’re stacking up eight or nine guys at the line, but we’re still getting the same results,” Woodfin said.

Harris of Baldwin Park is a tailback who has thrust himself into the mix of top players because of his fantastic start.

“He’s just a special talent,” Coach James Heggins said. “He can turn the corner with the best of them.”

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Added Harris, who carried 101 times for 1,100 yards last season: “If you let me up the sideline, I’m gone.”

Harris has started to pay attention to the other top backs.

“They’re my competition,” he said. “I like the running back from Mission Viejo. He has power. I like the running back from Dorsey. He’s physical.”

In the end, though, Harris said he isn’t concerned with Moline or Johnson.

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“I just run hard for my team because I’m trying to put Baldwin Park back on the map,” he said.

There are lots of schools going on the map this season thanks to a collection of running backs who don’t stop running until someone turns off the lights.

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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Rushers rising

A look at the Southland’s top running backs (statistics through last week’s games):

*--* Player, School Yr. Yards Avg TD P.J. Vallier, Trabuco Hills Sr. 1,217 7.6 10 Aaron Harris, Baldwin Park Jr. 1,142 14.5 19 Toby Gerhart, Norco Sr. 1,011 14.7 13 Ryan Bass, Cor. Centennial So. 888 10.2 12 Darrell Scott, Moorpark So. 873 7.8 10 Stafon Johnson, Dorsey Sr. 853 9.8 9 C.J. Gable, Sylmar Sr. 843 12.4 14 Rocky Taloa, Esperanza Sr. 832 8.6 8 Ken Ashley, Venice Sr. 741 9.0 11 Rodney Glass, SO NDame Sr. 708 8.6 12 Shane Vereen, Valencia Jr. 625 9.9 12 Milton Knox, Birmingham So. 618 6.5 8 Marc Tyler, Oaks Christian Jr. 604 13.4 10 Chane Moline, Mission Viejo Sr. 474 6.1 10

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