Top 10 running backs to watch in Rockford-area high school football

East High's Javius Catlin, center, pushes through Belvidere Buc defenders during a football game Friday, March, 26, 2021, at Belvidere High School.
Matt Trowbridge Jay Taft
Rockford Register Star

Friday night football games are closing in fast, with schedules locked in and practices underway.

Our preseason coverage of the area teams is off and running as well.

Leading up to the Aug. 27 season-opening kickoff, we will not only take a look at the best teams from the NIC-10, Big Northern, NUIC and 8-man football, but we will also take a position-by-position look at the top players to watch in the entire area. Matt Trowbridge will profile the large-school selections and Jay Taft will look at the players in classes 1A through 4A.

Today, we continue our series by spotlighting the running backs. In alphabetical order, here are 10 running backs to watch from the Rockford area heading into the fall football season:

Large schools

Javius Catlin, East

Catlin rushed for 423 yards in six games as a freshman, ranking second in the league behind then-senior teammate CJ Berry’s 953 yards. That is the highest total for a freshman in NIC-10 history. His 10.8 yards per carry ranks second all all-time in the conference, topped only by Boylan’s Will Sahlstrom, who averaged 11.8 per carry (746 yards) in 2008.

Top 6 QBs to watch:Top 6 quarterbacks to watch this season in Rockford-area high school football

Top 10 DBs to watch:Top 10 defensive backs to watch in Rockford-area high school football

“Catlin is a once-in-a-generation type kid. He’s as fast as they get, and he’s not the fastest one,” East coach Gary Griffin said, mentioning Deterrace Dotson, who ran for 107 yards on only 10 carries as a freshman last year, has even more speed.

“Those guys are the two most dynamic guys I have had at the same time in 25 years of coaching," Griffin said. "It’s just unreal how dynamic and athletic they are, especially for our system and what we do. They are also great on defense. I believe both of those guys will be money guys, scholarship guys.”

Catlin carries a 4.0 GPA in school and Dotson is at 3.8.

Anthanee Crawford, Harlem

The 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior played some at running back, receiver and free safety as a junior, running for 125 yards on 34 carries. He has been clocked in 4.4 seconds for the 40-yard dash and should play a much bigger role this year for the defending NIC-10 champions.

“He’s pretty dynamic,” Harlem coach Bob Moynihan said. “He’s extremely explosive. He’s the fastest kid on the team.”

Garrett Gensler, Rochelle

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound junior ran for 345 yards as a sophomore, averaging 6.5 yards a carry as the second-leading rusher for the Hubs (2-4).

"We are leaning heavily on him to run the football for us," Rochelle coach Kyle Kissack said. "He is versatile. He can play tailback for us, fullback for us, H-Back for us. He has good vision and is physical."

Stuart Hale, Hononegah

Hale is ready to step up as Hononegah’s featured back after running for 151 yards on 31 carries as a junior.

“Stuart has had a great summer,” Hononegah coach Brian Zimmerman said. “He was part of our 1-2 combo with Dylan Collins last year. Dylan was kind of the bruiser and Stuart the finesse guy, but Stuart has gotten stronger. He is not afraid to hit the hole this year. He has great hands as well. He is one of our great weapons.”

Jackson brothers, Freeport

Tarrone Jackson ran for 268 yards and four TDs on 59 carries as a 5-foot-8, 165-pound junior. His brother Denarius ran for 39 yards on nine carries as a 6-foot freshman for the 3-3 Pretzels.

“Tarrone does something of everything for us, from special teams to linebacker to running back,” Freeport coach Anthony Dedmond said. “He’s that north and south runner. He always runs through tackles and is looking to get positive yards. His brother, Denarius, has a beautiful stride. I love to watch him run. Everything is one-step and run with him.”

More football:Here are 5 football matchups you won't want to miss this fall in the Rock River Valley

Small schools

Adrian Arellano, Dakota

The junior started off as the star on the frosh-soph level last season, and was about to get his first varsity start when Dakota was forced to cancel its last three games due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Arellano is coming off a track and field season in which he earned a state medal with a pair of sprint relay teams. He also just recently broke the team's 40-yard dash record.

"I think he's ready to break out a little bit and be our next great running back," Dakota coach Joe Free said. "We changed our entire scheme to fit his skills."

Chandler Binkley, Byron

Byron's Chandler Binkley tries to get control of the ball after it was stripped by Genoa-Kingston's Evan Haag, bottom, during the second quarter of their game in Byron on Friday, April 2, 2021. Genoa won the game 14-0.

Byron struggled to move the ball at times last season, but when the Tigers were rolling, it was usually Binkley getting the bulk of the carries. He finished with 502 yards and five TDs in five games.

Although Byron likes to use multiple backs in its offense, look for the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder to make plenty of noise for the resurgent Tigers. He turned into a key cog in 2019, when four backs lost time to injury and he was brought in as a sophomore.

Now he's a senior, and will be looked at as a leader.

"Chandler has been working really hard ever since he got here, and we really expect a lot out of him this season," Byron coach Jeff Boyer said.

Michael Cunningham, Winnebago

Winnebago's Michael Cunningham runs against Stillman Valley in the third quarter of their Big Northern Conference game at Mendota High School Saturday, March 27, 2021, in Mendota. Stillman Valley beat Winnebago, 21-10.

Once starting tailback Micah Gearhart started battling injuries early in the season, Winnebago had to look to someone else. It turned out to be one of the area's top placekickers, Cunningham, who stepped in and started to show real promise.

"He showed flashes last year," Boyer added, speaking of Cunningham.

Now Cunningham will get a chance to become an every-down back. Look for him to also continue to consistently boot 40-plus-yard field goals.

Marey Roby, Lena-Winslow

Roby broke his foot early in the first game of the spring season and had to have surgery and did not return. But now he's back.

The junior is looked at as one of the fastest and most elusive backs in the area, and if he can stay healthy, he will be a key to opponents' game plans every week. Roby rushed for 779 yards rushing and nine TDs, and added 227 yards receiving with 5 TDs as a sophomore during the 2019 state championship run. He was the top kick and punt returner, as well.

"He could be the best running back in the whole area," Le-Win coach Ric Arand said. "He looks really good right now. He's bigger, stronger, faster. It's going to be fun to watch."

Trenton Taylor, Durand/Pecatonica

Taylor averaged 8.7 yards per carry last season as the leading rusher for the Rivermen. He also averaged 10.2 yards per catch out of the backfield as one of QB Hunter Hoffman's key targets.

Look for Taylor's role to expand this year. He won't be sneaking up on anybody this time around, though.

"(Hoffman) has some weapons to work with," Arand said of Du/Pec's star QB, before adding, about Taylor: "And he's going to be good again."

Jay Taft: jtaft@rrstar.com; @JayTaft.

Matt Trowbridge: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge.