Having one 1,000-yard rusher on a football team means that the team is probably winning games.
But what happens when there are two?
It wins a region championship.
Playing in the Wing T offense, Mingus Union High School senior Tyler Kelly and junior Alex Nelson split the workload throughout the 11-game campaign in 2017 as each finished with nearly 1,100 yards.
“It’s pretty exciting, because 1,000 yards, that’s really good .... That’s really cool for Alex too and they’ll have him back next year, so that’s something big,” Kelly said. “That’s just a good team effort, it says something about our team to get two guys running over 1,000.”
Kelly finished the year with 1,067 rushing yards on 130 carries while Nelson had 1,075 yards on 144 touches. Kelly had five 100-yard games and 10 touchdowns; Nelson had six 100-yarders and 13 touchdowns.
They also helped carry the Marauders to the Grand Canyon Region championship with a 5-1 record, the team’s 20th league title.
“That’s the thing, everybody in the Grand Canyon [Region] had the one, but we had the two. And our offense we’ve been lucky over the years, most of the time we have really good running backs,” Marauders head coach Bob Young said.
As a team that had graduated every one of its All-Grand Canyon Region selections from 2016, on paper it looked to be a rebuilding year.
On top of that the team played one of the toughest non-region schedules in Conference 4A: At No. 3 Higley High School, at home against No. 8 Cactus Shadows High School and at No. 5 Cactus High School. And the team struggled on the ground.
“At the start of the year the plan was for them to split on offense and both play defense, and we struggled finding a fullback,” Young said. “When we moved Tyler to fullback then everything just kind of clicked. By the Cactus game we said ‘Hey this is a pretty good combination here.’”
It ended the year with No. 1 Sunrise Mountain High School on senior night — Kelly piled up 129 yards on 20 carries and Nelson 92 yards on 16.
Each was rewarded for their big seasons: Kelly was named Grand Canyon Region Player of the Year, as well as First Team for running backs, kickoff and punt returner. Nelson earned First Team honors as a utility/offensive flex player, and was selected as the Second Team running back.
“I didn’t expect to break 1,000 yards because that was always a competitive thing to get for me and Tyler,” Nelson said. “In the offseason that’s all that we worked for and when we both got it, it was pretty neat to know that we both did it, not just one of us.”
Such production does not merely come from individual talent. Mingus’ young and inexperienced offensive line made strides as the weeks passed, the one hiccup coming in the 45-16 homecoming loss to Bradshaw Mountain High School on Sept. 29.
Afterwards, Young said that his team was dominated on the line of scrimmage, and Kelly and Nelson had just 13 and 20 yards, respectively.
The very next week, at Prescott High School, the duo of tailbacks exploded for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns each in a 38-6 victory.
“We just had a different mentality. I think in the Prescott game both me and Tyler we did as much as we can and we had each other’s backs,” Nelson said. “We just told our line we promise that we’re going to get that extra yard, because if we punch in five yards a carry then we’re going to drive right down the field and score, and that’s exactly what we did.”
In fact, on the opening drive of the second half against Prescott the Marauders ran the ball every single play en route to a touchdown.
In each game, one back would gash defensive interiors for big gains, but once teams tried to bottle him up, then the offense would shift to the other.
Against Cactus, Kelly had 221 yards, Nelson had 53.
The following game, the Grand Canyon Region opener at home against Lee Williams on Sept. 15, Nelson had 129 yards along with three touchdowns and Kelly 86 with one score.
Then after the Bradshaw Mountain game, it was double trouble for opposing defenses. Both backs had at least 115 yards and a touchdown. Improvement at the line of scrimmage was obvious.
“Honestly it’s just a team effort. They try, I try, I just give it my all every time I get the ball,” Kelly said. “They rely on me to get some yards and take care of the ball and I rely on them to give me some blocks and just a little bit of a hole
to do something.”
While the search for a new fullback is underway, Mingus will boast the return of Nelson and that offensive line return in 2018.