A broken foot, a called shot, a first block: Alabama football stars' best high school tales
Jahmyr Gibbs had seen enough.
Opposing Creekview defensive linemen had been torpedoing at offensive linemen’s legs throughout the high school game one September 2019 night in Georgia. Matt Land, then Gibbs’ coach at Dalton, said some would sometimes hold the legs of the linemen, too, aiming to slow Gibbs and the running game.
Finally, with about four minutes left in the game, that torpedoing technique led to an injury for Dalton’s left tackle. He tried to hobble off, but he couldn’t. He went to the ground, and Dalton called an injury timeout.
“I’m mad, the team is mad. Heck, the band is mad,” Land said. “Everybody is mad because everybody can see what’s going on.”
Dalton had a commanding 35-19 lead late in the fourth quarter, but the score didn’t matter. Land, Gibbs and the team wanted to respond.
During the injury timeout, Land gathered his team and schemed. He explained how Dalton would make it look like it was running buck sweep, a frequent Dalton play call, but then run something else and score.
“Coach,” Gibbs interjected. “Run brown.”
No, no, no, Land said. Creekview would expect brown, the play call for buck sweep to the right.
“Coach, run brown,” Gibbs repeated.
Land again made his case why Dalton shouldn’t. Then Gibbs reached over and grabbed his arm.
“Coach, run brown,” Gibbs said, “and I will score.”
OK, Land said. Dalton could run brown.
Then Gibbs took the handoff, rocketed past the defense and ran for a 66-yard touchdown. He finished the day with 24 carries for 315 yards and six rushing touchdowns.
“He called his shot,” Land said, “and hit a home run.”
Fast forward three years, and Gibbs is about to begin his first season as a running back for Alabama football where he’s expected to be a star. Transferring from Georgia Tech this offseason, Gibbs is one of many talented players on the Crimson Tide roster who are expected to make an impact this season.
Before these star players were some of the best in college football, each experienced pivotal moments in high school.
The Tuscaloosa News asked several of their high school coaches the same question this summer: What’s the best story from high school about your player?
Here are their answers.
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Will Anderson Jr.’s crucial change
If it had been up to Anderson five years ago, he wouldn’t be chasing SEC quarterbacks today. He wouldn’t have led the nation with 34.5 tackles for loss in 2021. In fact, he wouldn’t be playing defense at all.
He would be a fullback.
Anderson was heading into his sophomore year when the new coaches at Dutchtown High School in Georgia said they wanted him to play defensive end.
“He wanted to play fullback,” defensive coordinator Will Rogers said. “I basically told him, ‘No. SEC defensive ends are like you, son.’ And he went home and cried to his mom about it.”
His mom, Tereon Anderson, called Rogers to understand the thought process. They talked, and she decided to trust the coach. So did her son.
“You ask him to do something, he’s going to do it,” Rogers said. “Once he bought in, it was over with.”
Rogers said Tereon often thanks him.
Alabama football fans probably would, too.
Henry To’oTo’o’s toughness
The night before the 2018 California state championship, Henry To’oTo’o was about as unlucky as it gets.
De La Salle High School in Concord, California, was going through a walk-through before a matchup with Bryce Young and Mater Dei (Santa Ana). To’oTo’o was jogging, then he stepped wrong.
His foot was broken. He would need surgery.
His coach, Justin Alumbaugh, told him that he had a big future ahead of him, so it would probably be best for To’oTo’o to shut it down.
That wasn’t an option for the future Alabama linebacker, though. To’oTo’o wasn’t about to miss the last game of his high school career.
He played the next day, broken foot and all.
“It was incredible,” Alumbaugh said. “His presence out there, it uplifted our program.”
De La Salle ended up losing 35-21, but To’oTo’o walked away a legend.
“Just having him out there kept us in the game against a team that was pretty superior to us,” Alumbaugh said. “Watching him give it his all and try to do everything he could.”
Bryce Young’s breakout
Before the Iron Bowl drive, Young had the IMG Academy drive.
The Florida powerhouse was ranked No. 1 in the country while Mater Dei held the No. 3 spot in 2018. The game that was broadcast on a Fox Sports regional channel was filled to the brim with four- and five-star talent, and in the final minutes, IMG looked primed to win.
Or so it thought.
Trailing by three, Young went 6-for-6 down the field, hitting some crucial third-down throws. On the final play, he kept the ball on a read-option play and broke into the end zone with 1:09 left. Mater Dei won 28-24.
“That game gave him so much confidence that he can play with the elite and he is elite and he can beat the elite and play at a very high level,” said Taylor Kelly, Mater Dei’s quarterbacks coach. “Ever since then, after that game, his confidence was through the roof.”
Emil Ekiyor’s drive block
Ekiyor’s time with the freshman team lasted one play.
In early June 2014, Cathedral High School in Indianapolis had its varsity offensive linemen practicing side by side with the freshmen. First, the varsity linemen went through the simple drill in which they practiced their first three steps while drive-blocking someone. Then, the freshmen went. First up was Ekiyor.
He was supposed to take only three steps, but he didn’t stop there. He drove the kid almost 10 yards before he could even recover.
The offensive line coach looked back at coach Rick Streiff.
“Coach …” the assistant started.
“…Yep,” Streiff finished for him.
No additional words needed. Ekiyor joined the varsity squad that day and never looked back. He started that year as Cathedral won a state championship.
“It was obvious he had no business being with the freshman,” Streiff said.
Brian Branch’s debut
Sandy Creek High School in Georgia needed to field a punt, but its usual punt returner was suspended.
So, Sandy Creek turned to a freshman — Branch.
“His eyes were as big as quarters,” his coach, Brett Garvin, said.
Branch had taken reps at punt returner in practice. The coaches knew he could handle it well in that setting, but Garvin said Branch hadn’t stepped foot in a varsity game before that moment.
That didn’t seem to matter. Branch made the most of it.
The future Alabama defensive back returned the punt to the 2-yard line.
“He proved pretty quick when the lights come on,” Garvin said, “he turns his game up.”
Cameron Latu’s kick return
Teams always avoided kicking to Latu.
At 6-foot-5, 236 pounds, he was one of Olympus (Utah) High School’s best athletes. His coaches had put him back for kicks before, but the future Alabama tight end never had a chance actually to return one.
“They were afraid of what he might do,” his coach, Aaron Whitehead, said.
Rightfully so. Murray High School found out why.
Murray squib-kicked the football to Olympus in 2017, and Latu finally saw his chance to return a kick.
Latu snatched the bouncing football then knifed through the kick coverage. The kicker had a chance to stop him along the sideline, but this wasn’t a fair matchup. The top of this Murray defender’s helmet barely reached the height of Latu’s shoulder pad.
Latu shoved him to the ground then ran into the end zone to cap off a 75-yard kickoff return.
Nick Kelly covers Alabama football and men's basketball for The Tuscaloosa News, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly