Missouri’s top high school football players: Meet the state’s best running backs

By Jon Walker | Jay Harris photo courtesy of Timberland football

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a position-by-position look at some of the top players in Missouri high school football. This list focuses on the running backs. (Quarterbacks)

There are hundreds of standout football players in Missouri and these lists are not intended to be comprehensive. Use the comments section to discuss the other running backs worthy of fans’ attention in 2021.

Jace Reynolds, 5-8, 190, Sr., Harrisonville

Despite Harrisonville being without a Week 7 opponent, Reynolds still boasts some of the best figures in the state. The senior, who has a 4.07 GPA and runs a 4.51 40-yard dash, has carried the ball 112 times for 1,195 yards and 12 touchdowns. Although the Wildcats are 3-3, the running back averages 199.2 yards rushing per game. In the first game of the season, Reynolds was the catalyst for the Wildcats’ 38-37 win against Wayne Hills (NJ), tallying 358 yards and four scores on 24 carries. “Great leader, work ethic, character and student. We are beyond grateful and blessed to have Jace on our team,” Wildcats coach Brent Maxwell said. “He is an unbelievable runner with great balance, vision, speed and power. He is also a very good defender. Everything he brings to our team is very special.” 

Wentric Williams III, 6-0, 195, Sr., Liberty

Williams III has been Liberty’s  most reliable offensive asset while navigating through the grueling Suburban Gold Conference, which features powerhouses Lee’s Summit North and Liberty North. Also a wrestler, Williams has carried the ball 167 times for 1,113 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s also recorded eight catches for 53 yards and a score. The Blue Jay is coming off of a season in which he was named first-team All-State.

Jaxin Patterson, 5-10, 170, Jr., HIllsboro

Patterson has been one of the driving forces behind HIllsboro getting off to a 6-1 start this season, with the lone loss being to Jackson, the reigning champions. Throughout the first seven weeks of this fall, the junior has carried the ball 101 times for 921 yards (9.1 yards/carry) and 13 touchdowns. He’s reached the four-score mark twice — once in a 41-0 win against Cape Girardeau Central Sept 10 and the second during the Hawks’ 34-29 win over Festus Sept. 24. “Jaxin Patterson is a really tough competitive kid who plays the game of football with a physical style. He is a really strong kid who works hard in the weight room and runs much bigger than his 180 lb frame,” Hillsboro coach Bill Sucharski said. “Rarely goes down on first contact and finds the way to make big plays and big runs when we need it.”

Jacorey Love, 5-10, 170, So., Center (Kansas City)

Love has already garnered a lot of attention in his varsity debut season. The running back has taken an unofficial visit to Kansas State, and he’s a track star as well. While leading the Yellowjackets to a 4-2 record this fall, Love has carried the ball 108 times for 974 yards and 13 touchdowns. He’s also a threat in the receiving game, where he’s caught nine passes for 254 yards receiving and three scores. 

Arlen Harris Jr., 5-11, 200, Sr., Lutheran

Harris entered the fall of 2021 with nearly two dozen offers from Division I programs. In December 2020, he committed to Stanford. Now, 10 months after that, he’s terrorizing opposing defenses weekly in eastern Missouri. The school’s all-time leading rusher and Gatorade Player of the Year Finalist has carried the ball 76 times for 706 yards and 13 touchdowns. He’s effective in the receiving game as well, reeling in 11 catches for 264 yards and two scores. He also plays defense, recorded 21 tackles and an interception this season. “AJ Harris is a well-rounded student-athlete that leads his peers both on and off the field by example,” Lutheran coach Arlen Harris said. “He has a scary work ethic and is never satisfied with yesterday’s best. AJ will only continue to get better.”

Zhamari Gray, 5-8, 185, Sr., Raytown

The Blue Jays (3-2) have had their fair share of weeks off this season, only being able to play five games throughout the season’s first seven weeks. But, in those five games, Gray has been the focal point of the offense, carrying the ball 67 times for 628 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. He’s averaging 125.6 yards per game, and he’s also reeled in 11 catches for 203 yards receiving and two scores. His most notable performance of 2021 was when he recorded 11 carries for 200 yards and four touchdowns en route to Raytown beating Belton 43-13 Oct. 1. 

KJ Smith, 5-9, 180, Sr., Kearney

Smith, who placed second in the state in the discus last year, has spearheaded Kearney’s offense throughout the first seven weeks of the season. The Bulldogs have only been able to play six games, but when they’re on the field, Smith assures his mark is left on the game. He’s carried the ball 113 times for 966 yards and 14 touchdowns. He runs a 4.52 40-yard dash, and is hoping to rush Kearney (3-3) toward a postseason push. “KJ is an extremely talented athlete whose work ethic and preparation for play is one that is second to none. He is a gritty runner who has great vision as well as cut, burst and speed,” Bulldogs coach Josh Gray said. “The best thing about KJ is he is a great leader and great young man.”

Greg Lyles, 5-8, 170, Jr., Belton

Lyles has been one of the driving forces behind Belton jumping out to a 4-1 record throughout the first seven weeks of the season. He’s carried the ball 96 times for 706 yards rushing and nine touchdowns, averaging 141 yards per game. In his breakout game of the season, a 52-22 win against Central Sept. 10, he tallied 217 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. Lyles also plays basketball and averaged 7.3 points and almost three rebounds per game last season.

Anthony Miller, 5-11, 180, Jr., William Chrisman

The Bears haven’t found the success they would’ve liked throughout the first seven weeks of the season, carrying a 3-4 record into a Week 8 matchup with Belton, but Miller has been one of the main reasons they’ve found the success they’ve had. In Chrisman’s Week 1 win against Winnetonka, Miller carried the ball 24 times for 241 yards and three touchdowns, and that performance set the tone for the rest of the season. After the first seven games, he’s compiled a statline that features 876 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns on 121 carries, averaging 125 yards per contest. Miller also runs track and has personal-best time of 11 seconds and 16 milliseconds in the 100-meter dash.

Blake Heitman, 5-11, 180, Sr., Odessa

The Bulldogs workhorse was named to the Class 3 third team after fall 2020, a junior season which featured Heitman rushing for 1,327 yards and 22 touchdowns. He’s found a way to mirror those numbers a year later, heading into Week 8 with 1,029 yards and 20 touchdowns on 111 carries. He’s rushed four 147 yards per contest, which has been good enough to have Odessa undefeated after the first seven weeks of the season. To go along with his efforts on the ground, Heitman has caught seven passes for 70 yards and two scores. “Blake Heitman is an outstanding running back but is a better football player. Blake has started at corner on defense since his sophomore year.  Blake is one of our best tacklers,” Odessa coach Mark Thomas said. “Blake returns kicks and punts with TD returns in both. Blake has blocked several kicks over the past three years. This year we have used him as a receiver and is making a big impact with his TD receptions.” 

Joe Leggio, 6-0, 230, Sr., Rockhurst

Leggio, who has taken a campus visit to Avila University, primarily identifies as a fullback. Despite Rockhurst’s 3-4 record, the senior has put up numbers that mirror some of the state’s best running backs. He’s carried the ball 148 times for 862 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns, averaging 123 yards per contest. He was the Hawklets’ offense in their 24-21 matchup Sept. 24, carrying the ball 42 times for a season-high 255 yards and three scores.

John Price, 5-10, 190, So., Lincoln Prep

Price is already turning heads throughout the Kansas City Metro area. En route to Lincoln Prep’s undefeated record throughout the first seven games of the season, the first-year starter has carried the ball 86 times for 737 yards and 12 touchdowns. The breakout game of his second year in high school happened when the Tigers beat Cameron 60-7 in Week 2, a game in which Price carried the ball 13 times for a season-high 169 yards and three touchdowns. “We believe John Price will be one of the top recruits from that class,” Lincoln Prep coach William Lowe said.

Hayden Sigg, 5-11, 190, Sr., Smithville

The Smithville Warriors entered the fall of 2021 after a third-place finish in Class 4 in 2020, and they were led by then-junior Sigg, who carried the ball 221 times for 1,130 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Warriors are undefeated after the first seven weeks of the 2021 season, and they’re Sigg has almost amassed last year’s numbers with three guaranteed games remaining. He’s tallied 948 yards and 14 touchdowns on 157 carries, including three different games with a hat trick this season, and he’s hoping to use his legs to propel Smithville past Week 8 opponent Ruskin and, eventually, deep into the postseason.

Makai Parton, 6-0, 200, Sr., Pacific

Despite the lack of overall success throughout the first seven weeks of the season, carrying a 2-5 record into Week 8, the running back has been the bright spot for the Indians. Heading into Pacific’s Week 8 matchup with Hermann (3-4), Parton has rushed the ball 142 times for 1,190 yards and 18 touchdowns. Along with averaging 8.4 yards per carry, he’s caught the ball eight times for 108 yards. He also plays defense, tallying 22 tackles this season. “He has great speed and lateral quickness, especially for a kid who is 200 pounds,” Pacific coach Paul Day said.

Jay Harris, 6-2, 190, Sr., Timberland

If there’s something to be done on the football field, Harris has probably done it this season. The senior, who currently holds an offer from Missouri Southern State University, has rushed for 972 yards and 17 touchdowns on 114 carries (8.5 yards/carry). In addition to his efforts on the ground, he’s reeled in 15 catches for 203 yards and a score. He also plays defense, recording 26 tackles and three interceptions. He has a passing touchdown and punt return for a touchdown as well. He’s impacted all three phases of the game and has been a crucial part in Timberland getting off to a 5-2 start before a Week 8 matchup with Francis Howell (6-1). “Jay is an incredible athlete that is equally dangerous out of the backfield as a runner or hauling in passes and gaining yards after the catch,” Timberland coach Ed Gilreath said. “He was an All-State DB last season whose natural vision and ability to break tackles have been instrumental in the success he’s having as a RB this year.”

Lukas Shelton, 6-2, 180, Sr., Excelsior Springs

En route to Excelsior Springs’ 3-2 start on the season, the senior running back has been the Tigers’ workhorse. Shelton has carried the ball 80 times for 807 yards rushing and nine scores. He hasn’t had as many opportunities as other teams, only being able to play five games so far this fall compared to some players’ seven. However, he’s averaging 161.4 yards per contest. His most notable performance of the season occurred Sept. 24, when he and Harrisonville running back Jace Reynolds had a meeting for the ages. Shelton’s squad eventually won, though, a 35-25 triumph that featured the Excelsior standout rushing for 284 yards and four touchdowns on 27 carries.

LJ Minner, 6-0, 195, Sr., Westminster

Minner, who has taken a campus tour at Alabama A&M, has been an unstoppable force for Westminster this fall, recording 1,060 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns on 128 carries. He’s a star on defense as well and has 39 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. Despite his large frame, he’s as versatile as they come; he qualified for state in three different track events last year, including the shot put, discus and 4×100-meter dash. It’s almost a first down every time he touches the ball, running for an average of 8.3 yards per carry. “LJ Minner is one of the best running backs in the St. Louis area,” Westminster coach Butler B’ynote said.

Bryce Schnoover, 5-8, 150, Sr., Warrensburg

Warrensburg got off to a 3-0 start this season, and it was mostly due to Schnoover’s ground capabilities. The team hasn’t found much success since then, dropping its past three contests. Still, the senior running back has been productive this season, carrying the ball 86 times for 680 yards rushing and six scores. He’s averaging 113 yards per contest, and also had three catches for 56 yards and a receiving score. He’ll hope to get the Tigers back on track when they play Summit Christian Academy in Week 8.

Dayshawn Welch, 5-10, 180, Sr., Park Hills Central

Welch has been nothing short of a problem for opposing defenses, compiling 938 yards and 17 touchdowns on 83 attempts this season. He’s averaging 11.3 yards per carry. In a 70-0 win against Cuba Sept. 17, Welch went off for 175 yards and five touchdowns on just six carries. “He is our school career leader in rushing yards:  over 4,600 yds and counting. He is our school career points leader: 378 points and counting,” Central coach Kory Schweiss said. “He is our school career TDs leader: 61 and counting. He is our single season rushing leader: 1,859 yards.”

Kevin Emmanuel, 5-8, 190, Jr., Eureka

Emmanuel enters Week 8 on the heels of a 57-21 win against Pattonville, a game in which the junior running back reached the 100-yard mark for the fourth time this season. He’s carried the ball 166 times for 916 yards and 15 scores en route to the Wildcats being 6-1 this fall. He’s also dangerous in the passing game, totaling 106 yards receiving and two touchdowns on seven catches.

Jake Hnilo, 5-11, 185, Jr., Lindbergh

Hnilo has been one of the biggest offensive pieces en route to the Flyers being 6-1 after the first seven weeks of the season. The running back has carried the ball 199 times for 861 yards and 13 touchdowns. In the Flyers’ Week 7 win against Ritemour, Hnilo had 187 yards rushing and tied a season high with four touchdowns on 21 carries. He averaged 8.9 yards per attempt against Ritemour and has an overall average of 7.2 yards per carry. “Jake is a tremendous team player for the Lindbergh Flyers. His work ethic in all aspects of life is contagious, as is his will to win,” Lindbergh coach Nathan Norman said. “Jake has excellent vision, balance and the ability to continue moving forward through contact.”

Anthony Williams, 5-11, 210, Jr., Jackson

Williams has been instrumental for Jackson’s continuous success following a state-title win. The Indians are off to a 7-0 start this season, and the smallest margin they’ve won by is 18 points. The running back, just a junior, has bullied opposing defenses this fall, running the ball 78 times for 652 yards and 12 touchdowns. He can catch when he needs to, and he showed that when he reeled in an 81-yard touchdown. He’ll enter Week 8 on the heels of a 55-0 win against Farmington on the road; he silenced Farmington’s home crowd, though, carrying the ball six times for 77 yards and two scores.

Deion Brown, 5-8, 170, Jr., Kirkwood

Brown has been coached all season by former NFL wideout Jeremy Maclin, who is in his first year as the head coach at Kirkwood. He’s taken those tips and used them to compile 845 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns on just 75 carries throughout the first seven weeks of the season, including a breakout performance during Kirkwood’s Week 1 win against Belleville West, when he carried the ball only eight times for 171 yards and three scores. He’s averaging 11.3 yards per attempt this season. “He’s the best running back in the state,” Maclin said. “No one out works him. And, above all, he’s a really good person. Program-changer in all aspects.”

Max Shoemake, 5-10, 170, Sr., Summit Christian Academy

Summit Christian Academy has found a ton of success this fall, carrying a record of 6-1 into a Week 8 matchup with the Southeast Knights. Shoemake has been the Eagles’ catalyst on offense, tallying 660 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on 112 carries. He’s averaged 94.3 yards per game this season, but he’s not just limited to having an impact on the ground. In the passing game, Shoemake has reeled in seven catches for 144 yards receiving and a score. “Max is a work horse who loves to run the ball with a punishing style,” Summit coach Todd Berck said. “He plays every snap on defense as well.” 

Jamarion Price, 5-5, 170, Sr., Hazelwood Central

Price, who was invited to play in the Hawaii Tiki Bowl this December, has been a key part in Hazelwood Central staying undefeated throughout the first seven weeks of the season. The senior has tallied 806 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns on 70 carries, averaging 11.5 yards per attempt. Perhaps his most notable performance came during Central’s Week 5 win against Kirkwood, when he ran 18 times for a season-high in yards (261) and scores (three).

Derrick Baker, 6-0, 200, Sr., SLUH

As one of the bigger running backs in the state, Baker has used his size to gouge opposing defenses this fall. En route to SLUH starting the season 4-2 — with the only two losses coming via MICDS and Christian Brothers — Baker has carried the Bills’ offense with 726 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns on 89 carries (8.2 yard/carry). In a 35-26 win against Chaminade Sept. 10, Baker carried the ball 14 times for a season-high 206 yards and one score. “Derrick Baker is an excellent running back,” SLUH coach Mike Jones said. “He plays fast and physical. Derrick’s yards after contact is 234 yards. Derrick has scored 10 TD’s and has five runs of 30 yards or longer.

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