There’s a system that’s been put in place over the last several cycles of talented running backs to patrol the Butler backfield, and it’s worked to perfection as those backs have spearheaded runs to three of the past four N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 4-AA state titles.
The torch was passed again this year to the next star Bulldog back ready to put his mark on the program in sophomore Benny LeMay, and he’s poised to deliver on his promising beginnings.
The running back trend began with Ryan Houston, who was Butler’s feature back before starring for the North Carolina Tar Heels after graduating in 2007. At that time, Houston was backed up by Jahwan Edwards, who spent time splitting carries as Houston’s apprentice and at fullback before leading Butler to state titles in 2009 and 2010 and becoming one of Ball State University’s (Ind.) all-time leading rushers.
Edwards was backed up in much the same capacity by Josh Glisson, a key cog in last year’s undefeated state championship run, who is now a freshman at Winston-Salem State University.
Last season, sophomore Benny LeMay was Glisson’s apprentice, biding his time at fullback and working in specific packages while spelling Glisson. LeMay, who Hales likens to a young Edwards, wound up with a nice season, which included 77 rushes for 404 yards and eight touchdowns.
This season, LeMay has blossomed as the feature back, passing on what he learned from those ahead of him to Chrissean Davis-Pinkney, a talented freshman who has assumed LeMay’s apprenticeship role from a season ago.
But this year and for the foreseeable future, the Butler backfield belongs to LeMay – something coach Brian Hales sees as a plus.
Despite missing time with injury, LeMay has produced a monster season, amassing nearly 2,000 total yards and producing 18 total touchdowns, including tossing two touchdown passes.
“Oh, he’s grown by leaps and bounds from last year,” Hales said. “Benny really understands what’s expected of him, he understands the blitz pickups and he knows where he’s supposed to be on the field.”
LeMay said some of that was learned playing last season on a team stacked with talent and leadership.
“The biggest thing that I learned was leadership,” LeMay said. “I’m not really a verbal guy, but I know sometimes I’m going to have to be like that. For me, it’s mostly leadership by my actions. When we get down or when things don’t go our way, we just have to keep our heads up and know we can keep going.”
LeMay suffered the first setback of his young and promising career on Oct. 4 against East Mecklenburg, when he injured his collarbone early in the game and subsequently missed the next two contests, including the Bulldogs’ loss to Rocky River on Oct. 18.
“It was hard,” LeMay said. “It hurt, but it lets me appreciate being able to play. You never know what you have.”
After watching from the sideline for two games with his arm draped in a sling, the running back came back more determined than ever to lead Butler to a conference championship – something the Bulldogs can do with a win over rival Independence on Nov. 8.
Hales said the nature of the rivalry, which has been one of the state’s most intense and pits the winners of 10 of the past 13 state champions against one another, means that execution is even more important. Considering the familiarity with each other’s schemes and personnel, being able to move the ball on the ground becomes paramount.
When LeMay was injured, Davis-Pinkney picked up the slack, gaining 367 yards and scoring four touchdowns in five games. While it will be nice to have the two work in tandem, Hales said having LeMay back to full strength only helps the Bulldogs, who will be at nearly 100 percent strength for the first time since early in the season.
“When Benny is in there, he calls the plays for us,” Hales said. “Having that is huge and he’s just a sophomore, but he has such a great understanding of the game that it kind of just comes to him.”
LeMay comes from a football family. His father, Stacy, was a standout at Florida A&M University. His oldest brother, Christian, is a quarterback at the University of Georgia where his other brother, Uriah, is a freshman receiver after each guided Butler to undefeated state championships.
“They taught me about leadership,” the youngest LeMay boy said of his family’s influence. “That and just how all eyes are on you and you have to do what you do the same way and be strong when times get tough.”
Considering Butler’s lofty standards, times have been understandably difficult for stretches this season. The Bulldogs lost 31 seniors and countless locker room leaders from last season’s team and lost three games this season, including their first conference game since 2008 to Rocky River.
Three losses to most other programs would be a successful year, but most programs aren’t Butler.
LeMay teamed with current Bulldog starters Anthony Ratliff and Jalen Cousar to win a national youth football championship in 2010 and said he hasn’t lost as many as three games since his first season playing Pop Warner football.
But LeMay doesn’t have time to look back and think of how they could’ve avoided the losses. He said he’s ready to make a name for himself and keep in line with the running back tradition that’s been among Butler’s strengths as a program.
To come out of what has been, on paper, the Bulldogs statistically worse season since 2006 – which, incidentally is the last time Butler lost to Independence and didn’t claim at least a share of the conference title – would mean a lot, LeMay said.
“It’s a growing-up season, an eye-(opening) season,” LeMay said. “It’s shown us what we need to strengthen up. Each time we’ve faced adversity, we’ve bounced back. It shows our strength and gets our confidence back each time.”
LeMay and every Butler player would say they never lost sight of the big goals on the season agenda, starting with a conference title they can win this week against their arch rivals.
And that would be the perfect end to the regular season and start into the postseason for LeMay and his teammates.
“It would mean a whole lot,” he said. “People doubted us in the beginning of the season, people doubted us in the middle and people doubt us now. We want this win to shock the world, really.
“People say it’s our big rivalries with Mallard Creek and teams, but really it’s just Independence, that’s our biggest rival. To get a win would mean a lot and to be conference champions would, too. We know we have to beat them first, and that’s what we’re going to do.”