Receivers have become game changers

082914_receivers_600
Wide receivers Cam Chambers of Timber Creek, Juwan Johnson of Glassboro, Irv Charles of Paul VI and Brad Hawkins of Camden. (Photo by Curt Hudson)

Early in his football career, Irv Charles was an offensive lineman.

Brad Hawkins was a quarterback.

Juwan Johnson was a running back.

Cameron Chambers has been a wide receiver since he put on a helmet at age 6, but that just means the Timber Creek junior has been ahead of the curve for most of his life.

What all four South Jersey stars have come to realize is that they play the sport's new glamour position: the hot spot for the best athletes and the prize college recruits.

What all four also have in common is this: They stand as symbols of the state of the sport at the high school level, with an increased emphasis on spreading the field and getting the football to speedy players who can do the most damage in space.

"It's a great time to be a wide receiver," said Charles, a senior at Paul VI.

Make no mistake: Football still is football. The best teams still tend to be the best at blocking and tackling.

And while there is more passing than ever at the professional, collegiate, and scholastic levels, South Jersey and state championships still tend to be won most often by teams that control the line of scrimmage, play sturdy defense, and run the ball with authority.

See St. Joseph and Cherokee and Shawnee and Delsea and West Deptford and Haddonfield, which have combined for 16 state or sectional titles in the last five seasons, for proof.

But in a broader sense, the game is changing and following trends that have been established at the pro and college levels.

More teams are running the spread offense. More teams are increasing the tempo, racing to the line to get set for the next snap and eschewing the huddle. More teams are applying aspects of those warm-weather, 7-on-7 passing competitions to their game plans in the regular season.

Charles, Hawkins, Johnson, and Chambers have come of age as high school players at an ideal time for athletes of their size and skill set. And they have the college scholarship offers to show for it.

Charles and Johnson have committed to Penn State. They both also had offers from Alabama and Ohio State, among other big-time programs.

Chambers has committed to Michigan State after narrowing his choices to a final five that also included Alabama, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio State.

Hawkins hasn't made a college decision but has offers from programs such as Florida, South Carolina, Michigan, and Michigan State, among others.

Haddonfield senior Jake Robinson, a top receiver and defensive back, has committed to Temple. So has Vineland senior Jeremiah Atoki, another top wide receiver. Bridgeton wide receiver Nazir Williams has committed to Connecticut. Timber Creek wide receiver Alan Butler has committed to Bucknell.

Cedar Creek junior Ahmir Mitchell, a standout wideout and defensive back, has offers from defending national champion Florida State, Michigan, and Penn State, among others. Palmyra junior wide receiver Kelvin Harmon has offers from Temple and Rutgers.

"You notice a lot of change," said Hawkins, who also is a star basketball player for Camden. "You see it in the pros, in colleges - everybody is passing a lot. It's happening in high school, too.

"It makes it fun to be a wide receiver. It's exciting."

Over the last two seasons, passing and receiving records in South Jersey football have fallen like leaves in late October.

Consider:

Before 2013, there never was a season in which more than three South Jersey quarterbacks threw for more than 2,000 yards. In 2013, six quarterbacks (seniors Dan Williams of Timber Creek, Tom Flacco of Eastern, Dylan Cummings of Pennsville, and Alec Vignola of Paul VI along with junior Malik Muldrow of Lindenwold and sophomore Jose Tabora of St. Augustine) passed for more than 2,000 yards.

The state record for passing yards in a season was set by Timber Creek's Williams, with 3,545 in 2013.

The South Jersey record for passing yards in a career was set by Pennsville's Cummings, who finished in 2013 with 7,695.

The second-most passing yards in a career in South Jersey history was generated by Eastern's Flacco, who finished in 2013 with 7,387.

The South Jersey records for receptions in a season (93 in 2012) and career (180) were set by Pennsville's Drew Burdsall, whose last season also was 2013.

The South Jersey record for receiving yards in a season was set by Timber Creek's Adonis Jennings with 1,434 in 2013.

Hawkins played for a Camden team last season that featured Temple-bound wide receiver/defensive back Sean Chandler and junior quarterback Khalil Williams, who passed for 1,964 yards and 29 touchdowns.

The Panthers will take to the air again this season, with Williams back and throwing to Hawkins as well as senior wide receiver Ja'Mir Washington, who has a Temple offer as a defensive back, and junior tight ends Ron Johnson, Dymelle Parker, and Jamal Holloway, all of whom have offers from major-college programs.

"We've got so many receivers; we love to throw the ball," Hawkins said.

At Paul VI, Charles plays in a no-huddle spread offense that usually features four wide receivers. Last season, Vignola passed for 2,176 yards and 24 touchdowns, and the Eagles likely will be just as prolific through the air this season with junior quarterback Matt Vitale, a transfer from Haddon Heights.

"What I like about it is that it gives you an opportunity to make plays," Charles said of the Eagles' fast-paced offense. "You find yourself in a one-on-one situation a lot."

At Timber Creek, Chambers plays in a wide-open offense that leans heavily on passing. Last season, Williams set the state record for passing yards in a season and also threw for 32 touchdowns.

With Jennings now at the University of Pittsburgh, Chambers is likely to become an even more integral part of the Timber Creek passing attack.

The Chargers have an experienced senior quarterback to pull the trigger in Khalil Trotman, a transfer who started as a sophomore and junior at Burlington Township. Trotman passed for 1,656 yards last season and could far surpass that in 2014.

"It's so much fun," Chambers said of Timber Creek's offense. "You have an opportunity to work on your craft in practice and by yourself, and then you get out there and you have a chance to show what you can do."

Johnson plays in a more traditional offense at Glassboro, which features a workhorse running back in senior Ronnie James, a Rutgers recruit as a defensive back.

But the Bulldogs rallied from a 2-5 start to win the South Jersey Group 1 title last season for two major reasons: Junior quarterback Mike Maldonado joined the team in early October, and Johnson gradually recovered from a high ankle sprain.

With Johnson fully healthy and Maldonado with the team from the first day of training camp, Glassboro will have a potent passing attack to complement its ground game.

"You see the passing game is evolving," Johnson said. "More and more teams are doing it. It's becoming essential.

"It's an exciting time to be a wide receiver, especially when you think about the way things are in college and in the pros."

Charles laughs when he remembers his days as an offensive lineman.

Hawkins smiles when he recalls that his dream used to be to play quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.

Johnson knows he's probably too tall to revisit his days as a running back.

They all prefer to be wide receivers. Especially in 2014.

Chambers has been there all along, following in the footsteps of his father, Chris, a star wide receiver at Edgewood and Temple.

"It's a fun time in South Jersey football," Cameron Chambers said. "When you are a wide receiver, you always seem to have an opportunity to show what you can do."


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

www.inquirer.com/

jerseysidesports