A BEST-KEPT SECRET

Mississippi State signee Lee Witherspoon only started playing running back as a high school senior, so he went unnoticed as the 2018 season began. But after scoring an Alabama-record 59 touchdowns, he could find himself in the national spotlight this fall.
photo of Adam KramerAdam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterFebruary 5, 2019

Let's start with the numbers, because it's the only reasonable place to begin when talking about a player's season that still doesn't feel quite real. Even those who witnessed it aren't exactly sure how to describe what they saw.

These aren't Madden numbers. You couldn't do what Lee Witherspoon did this past fall in any virtual world, difficulty be damned. This is something else entirely—the kind of season that running backs are not supposed to produce at any level.

The first eight times the Mississippi State signee carried the football for North Jackson High School in Stevenson, Alabama—a small town of a few thousand people nestled up against the Tennessee border—he accounted for 301 yards and six touchdowns.

Before his senior season, Witherspoon had never carried the football. At least not since middle school, when he played running back for A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club in Birmingham.

After being moved to running back, his coaches assumed his production would dip as the 2018 season progressed and the competition improved. It had to, right? But then midway through the season, he scored 16 touchdowns on 23 touches, and one spectacular moment morphed into the next.

In total, Witherspoon ran for 2,846 yards on only 148 carries, averaging an unfathomable 19.2 yards per carry. He scored 59 touchdowns, a single-season Alabama High School Athletic Association record. And as staggering as his statistics were, they could have been even better.

"We did the numbers," offensive coordinator Joe Hollis says. "He had 12 touchdowns called back for various penalties. That would have put him at 71. Think about it. That's a touchdown almost every other time he had the ball in his hands."

Because North Jackson was usually well ahead of its 4A opponents in most games, Witherspoon logged only one carry in the fourth quarter during the regular season. Many times, he was done at halftime.

He returned one kickoff and ran it back 80 yards for a touchdown.

"The ball really wasn't for me," he recalls of that return, which came in the third game of the season. "It was going to another player. He dropped it, and it somehow popped into my hands. I just started running and scored a touchdown."

He returned 10 punts—scoring on three of themand averaged 35.6 yards per return. He also returned his lone interception on defense, where he played in the secondary, for a touchdown.

The only blemish? One measly fumble. And when Witherspoon gave up the ball, his mother, Diane, took away his cellphone for a week as punishment.

North Jackson defensive coordinator Joe Dan Gudger and Lee Witherspoon
North Jackson defensive coordinator Joe Dan Gudger and Lee WitherspoonPhoto courtesy of Diane Witherspoon

"Listen," North Jackson head coach Mark Rose says. "This is the greatest story I've ever been associated with. I've never even heard of any running back averaging 19 yards per carry for a season. You don't even really believe what you're seeing."

Witherspoon stands 5'10" and weighs 180 pounds, although the North Jackson coaches believe he is only scratching the surface on what he will become physically. He has been clocked at 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash and ran 100 meters in 10.85 seconds in the spring, finishing second at the state track meet.

At first glance, one would assume Witherspoon was one of the nation's most coveted football prospects, and that Mississippi State just landed a player who will immediately transform its offense.

The latter could still be true. Joe Moorhead, the head coach at Mississippi State—who helped develop running back Saquon Barkley into an eventual top draft pick at Penn State—will inherit a potentially program-defining talent in Witherspoon.

But the race to secure Witherspoon's commitment was not what one might expect. He was not regarded as a can't-miss 5-star talent. He was a 3-star recruit and the 21st-ranked senior in Alabama, according to 247Sports. Until November, when his numbers started to pile up, Witherspoon was off the recruiting radar.

There are reasons it took this long for so many recruiters to come calling, but none is more important than this: Witherspoon has been a running back for only eight months.

Before this fall, Witherspoon had been gaining traction as a defensive back at A.H. Parker High School in Birmingham. With long arms and elite speed, he garnered some early college attention.

In the spring of his junior year, however, the Witherspoon family moved two hours northeast. They went from the recruiting hotbed of Birmingham to out-of-the-way Stevenson, when Larry, Lee's father, changed jobs.

Lee Witherspoon
Lee WitherspoonPhoto courtesy of Diane Witherspoon

North Jackson High School was eager to get a glimpse of its new defensive back when he transferred. That introduction came not in football but in track. 

Sprinting has been as much a part of Witherspoon's sporting experience as football. To him, the sports are equals.

Hollis, who is also the school's head track and field coach, lined up Witherspoon with the fastest players on the team in the 100-meter dash. When Witherspoon easily won the race, Hollis began to think about how he could utilize his speed come football season.

"It's like he never has to put in maximum effort," Hollis says. "Like a car that shifts gears and gets in that overdrive and just stays in it."

Last summer, Witherspoon participated in several summer football camps with his coach and new teammates. The goal was to figure out what position he might play on offense. Although he had been a wide receiver at his previous high school, Rose felt he needed to get the ball in his hands more often.

During these camps, Witherspoon showed enough with his speed that schools such as Middle Tennessee State, UAB, Memphis and Troy offered him scholarships as a defensive back. Speaking on Witherspoon's behalf, Rose positioned his new player to college coaches as a running back. The only issue was there were no highlights or tape to reinforce his message.

Each time, Rose provided the same response: "Well, hold on now," he would say. "Because there's gonna be. I can promise you that."

When the season began, the buzz grew each week. Witherspoon's seven-touchdown, 334-yard rushing performance in the team's third game felt like an arrival. At that point, word began to spread.

"We were just speechless," fellow North Jackson running back Korre Smith says. "His strength, his moves, the way he can shift. I was the fastest player on the track team. That is until he came in."

North Jackson's football games became events, largely because those in attendance were waiting for Witherspoon's next long run. As news of his astronomical numbers spread around the Southeast, Witherspoon made it look easy, despite still learning the nuances of the position.

The game-by-game numbers were so staggering and unusual that recruiting writers had to follow up with his coaches to verify them.

"This is among the most unique players I've covered in Alabama," says 247Sports recruiting analyst John Garcia Jr. "Most of those guys who hold major records, there is a buildup as a sophomore or a junior and you can almost see it coming. But he's not on any career list because he only played the position for a year, and he had about as good a single season on the ground as anybody who's ever come through the state."

Getting Witherspoon acclimated to the new position was only part of the transition. Rose was also concerned about his low grade-point average. But since arriving at North Jackson, those academic issues have been addressed. And while it once seemed like Witherspoon would have to play in junior college, "he's gotten As and Bs since he's been here," says Rose. "There's still work to do, but he's done a great job."

Lee Witherspoon, flanked by his mother, Diane, and his father, Larry, at his signing ceremony.
Lee Witherspoon, flanked by his mother, Diane, and his father, Larry, at his signing ceremony.Photo courtesy of Diane Witherspoon

Near the end of October, as his historic season took shape, the recruiting floodgates began to open. Mississippi State was one of the first major programs to offer him a scholarship. Virginia Tech and Louisville followed. Alabama and Tennessee showed extensive interest, although they coveted Witherspoon on defense despite his historic offensive numbers.

"I think five or 10 years ago, he'd be the defensive back, return man, and that would be it," Garcia Jr. adds. "But in this era, we've seen unconventional ways to get guys the football, unconventional players getting the football, and I think that will propel him."

Rather than continue to receive offers, Witherspoon didn't feel the need to wait. He took an official visit to Alabama for the Iron Bowl game against Auburn, although when he returned, his mind was made up.

"Mississippi State welcomed us with open arms," Witherspoon says. "It was just like a bigger version of Stevenson, really. To me, it felt like home."

Witherspoon signed in December, ending one of the more unique recruitments in recent memory. He'll dedicate the next few months to solidifying his academic standing while also taking a crack at multiple state championships in track—a sport he hopes the football staff at Mississippi State will allow him to play.

As for his meteoric rise, it still doesn't feel quite real.

"Throughout everything," Witherspoon says, "I've surprised myself with what I've been able to do."

Surprised himself and everyone else. 

        

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.

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