BY JIM THOMAS
Repository sports writer
LOUISVILLE When senior two-way standout Ja’Lon Humphries went down with a collapsed lung just before the football season began, you could almost hear the air rush out of the St. Thomas Aquinas faithful.
Not to worry.
“Ja’Lon is one of our toughest kids,” St. Thomas Aquinas head coach Tim Budd said. “He always has been.”
Then Budd tells you a reason why.
“He worked as the garbage collector for the city of Canton this summer,” Budd said. “Then he would come straight to two-a-days from work. He was dedicated to a full-time job, and he put the time into football.
“He’s one tough kid.”
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Losing Humphries, a three-year starter on defense, was a sick feeling for a young and inexperienced unit. Having your much-anticipated No. 1 running back go down, a sucker punch to the offensive gut.
As fast as Humphries is on the field, though, he’s proven to be an equally fast healer.
His swift return to the field healed what ailed the Knights offense early in the 2013 season.
“I know we had a big ground game against Youngstown Christian in Week 6,” Budd said. “Week 7 we were pretty good against Garfield.
“But Weeks 8-9-10-11, Ja’Lon just kicked his game up a notch. He ran with great speed and toughness.”
Humphries had finally run like the guy Budd thought he could be after playing a backup role for two seasons. Humphries came back in fits and starts, beginning in Week 3. He first got healthy in Week 6 with a 110-yard game on just 11 carries.
Then the 5-7, 160-pounder zipped his way to games of 88, 123, 115 and 128 yards, the last in the Knights’ 47-14 Division VI playoff win Saturday at Brookfield.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Humphries said before Monday’s practice. “I have waited a long time, but I’m glad I got my shot this year. I think I’m taking advantage of it pretty well.”
In parts of nine games, Humphries has ripped off 815 yards at 5.9 yards a clip and scored nine touchdowns to provide Aquinas with the ground game to complement the passing of quarterback Anthony Moeglin.
“Teams ... don’t have to worry just about the run, or just about the pass,” Humphries said. “They have to worry about both, because we can do both things.”
Aquinas knew it needed a healthy Humphries after getting buried 30-0 by Marlington in Week 3. In his first action of the year at running back, he gained 22 yards on 11 carries and the team was constantly mired in bad down-and-distance situations.
It wasn’t Humphries’ fault the running game was fizzling. He had just 23 carries for 136 yards as a sophomore. Last season Humphries ran it 24 times for 124 as he played behind Bryan Wilkins (1,061 yards) and Josiah Moore (801 yards).
The injury, suffered in a scrimmage at Alliance, delayed his development further.
“He had played before, but in just a handful of varsity games,” Budd explained. “He needed repetition and getting his timing with his line in camp. Because he was hurt, he had to get his reps in live game situations.”
However, Humphries had to not only learn the offense on the fly, but the defense as well.
A starting outside linebacker as a sophomore and junior, he came into camp playing corner hoping to absorb fewer hits after carrying the ball. That plan went up in smoke after a young defense got pushed around and Humphries was needed to play Mike linebacker, on the inside.
“I started as a corner, had the collapsed lung, went to Mike linebacker, that’s a little different,” Humphries said with a smile. “It’s pretty fun, there’s a lot contact there.
“It makes me more vocal at Mike linebacker. I have to yell out at all the players. It makes me more of a vocal leader. I kinda like it.”
Budd said watching Humphries mature into a leader has been special. Watching him come back from a serious injury, deal with it, adapt swiftly to two new positions, and then excel at both?
“What can I say?” said Budd. “He’s just a tough kid.”