Joey Akers' gaudy offensive numbers this fall may be atypical for most first-year starting running backs, but a closer look at the Ferndale senior's football career reveals his productivity is anything but a surprise.
Thirteen carries. That's how many varsity rushes Akers had before Ferndale coach Jamie Plenkovich made him a featured back in this years' version of the Golden Eagles' Wing-T offense.
Plenkovich never was concerned, though. Even when two-thirds of Ferndale's 3,615 rushing yards graduated last year, not once did Plenkovich contemplate whether Akers would be prepared for a lead role.
"No," said the Ferndale coach frankly, when questioned if he was worried about his running-back situation. "You could tell this was (Akers') senior year, and he knew this was his year. You could tell with the way he worked in the weight room. I had no doubt the season he was going to have. We talked about it as coaches. We just had no doubt he was going to have a great year, and that's what he is doing."
The first sign of Akers' breakout season began two years ago on scout team. Plenkovich saw a distinguishable toughness in his young player - an underclassman who wasn't afraid to take on bigger players.
In fact, Plenkovich uses Akers as an example with other players to personify what hard work produces.
"He's a great story, because we talk to our young guys all the time," said Plenkovich. "He is a guy that stood out on the scout team. He was always jumping in there, and those guys beat on you a little bit, and he just kept coming back. We thought, down the road, this guy can be a good player for us."
Plenkovich's intuition was spot on. Akers has thrived in his more-inclusive role, running for a team-high 827 yards on 110 carries for an average of 7.5 yards per rush. He's scored 14 touchdowns, including one of Ferndale's two passing TDs.
He'll try to add to that total when Ferndale hosts Lynden at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25, at Ferndale High during arguably the most anticipated Whatcom County football game of the season.
Akers, who moved from the Blaine School District in eighth grade, became enamored with the Golden Eagles' rich football tradition upon arriving at Ferndale. Right after last year's 28-0 Class 3A State Playoff loss to Bellevue, he began training for his opportunity, showing an unmatched work ethic.
Akers is a player who's tacked on 40 pounds, mostly of muscle, since his first year at Ferndale. He's a guy who, during the offseason, would leave his house late at night and cover the half-mile it takes to get to Ferndale High so he could work out on the school's track. His sacrifice has made a world of difference, and Plenkovich said his offseason work displays his tremendous character and personal drive.
"Anytime somebody wants to work without anybody else around and doesn't want to be noticed ... again, he has taken it to the next level," the Ferndale coach said. "He's a great kid, and we're lucky to have him."
Akers figured he'd be given the first crack at earning Ferndale's starting running back job, based on the position hierarchy from previous years, but knew the role wouldn't be given.
"I came up watching the running backs that graduated before me, Alex Conley, watching them, and I knew this year I'd have to step up and be one of them."
Akers gives Ferndale a big-play back capable of chewing up yards in the open field. But his running ability is a mere fraction of his worth. Along with the help of Ferndale's offensive line, Akers has opened up big holes for bulky running-back partner Marcus Nightingale to create one of the top running back tandems in the Northwest Conference. Nightingale has 759 yards on 105 rushes and 10 TDs.
Akers also has helped Ferndale's defense in the run game after moving from starting cornerback to linebacker, where he now starts.
"We threw him in at linebacker because he is such a good tackler, and he's tough," Plenkovich said. "Again, sacrificed maybe some notoriety of being a corner and a two-year starter to come in and help us as a team. He's unselfish and does what ever he can to help the team win."
Leaning back in a chair in his football office inside Ferndale's locker room, Plenkovich couldn't erase his smile while discussing Akers. It stuck to his face like a coach's whistle at practice. It's a much different look than Akers leaves his opponents with.
The Golden Eagles, historically, generate most of their offense on the ground. That's no secret. But Akers sees a rushing attack this year with even more balance than previous seasons.
"This year, our offense, we can pretty much run wherever we want," Akers said. "We can run it up the middle with Marcus, or we can run outside with me and Daniel Jones. We have the versatility to run wherever we want."
Despite Ferndale's 6.8 yard per carry average, odds are Lynden and its top-class defense will have something to say about Akers' claim.
The Lions, led by senior inside linebacker Jaremy Martin's team-high 58.5 tackles, are only giving up 12 points per game. Ferndale hasn't scored less than 20 points this season.
Akers is putting together an impressive season, no doubt, but a win over Lynden would be the ultimate feather in his cap.
Ferndale has lost all three matchups with the 2A power since Akers' freshman year by a combined score of 111-42, including a 49-14 loss last year in Lynden.
But Akers believes this year will be different.
"We want to win," Akers stated firmly. "That's how the whole team feels. We're coming into the game wanting to win it, instead of liking to win."
LYNDEN AT FERNDALE
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25
Where: Ferndale High School
Tickets: Tickets will be on sale from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday-Friday, Oct. 24-25, at both school's ASB offices. Cost for an adult ticket is $6, $3 for students with ASB card and $3 for seniors age 62 and older.
FERNDALE'S KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Quick start: The Golden Eagles haven't beat Lynden since a 41-6 victory back in 2008. Ferndale needs to score quick to show the Lions it's ready to break its losing trend of late.
2. Limit mistakes: Coach Jamie Plenkovich knows the Lions have plenty of weapons and an extremely stout defense. Lynden rarely turns the ball over, limits mental errors and doesn't beat itself. "They are just so solid in everything they do," Plenkovich said. "You don't see them making any assignment mistakes on defense where they are giving up big plays. It's just a really solid well-coached team, and we're going to have to match that."
3. Make Somers uncomfortable: Sterling Somers made his first varsity start under center last week, replacing injured quarterback Lucas Petersen. Somers was 6 of 15 for 69 yards a touchdown and an interception during Lynden's win against Burlington-Edison. Getting his first road start during arguably Whatcom County's biggest game of the year will be a much different feel than his home start against the Tigers. If Ferndale can make Somers uncomfortable and create a turnover or two, it would help the Golden Eagles' chances. "They are balanced enough of offense, even when their backup guys are in there, they are still going to throw it," Plenkovich said. "We got to do a good job of not giving up big plays and keeping them in front of us."
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Marcus Nightingale (Ferndale running back) vs. Jaremy Martin (Lynden inside linebacker): Nightingale uses his low center of gravity and 220-pound frame to bulldoze any defender who tries to tackle him. Martin, Lynden's starting senior inside linebacker, is arguably one of the top defensive players in the Northwest Conference and has proved it with his team-high 58.5 tackles. Two big, strong athletes should lead to a lot of contact in the trenches.
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862.