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When it comes to Local High School Football, 2006 will be the Year of the Running Back
September, 2006 - Issue #23
J.J. DiLuigi
J.J. DiLuigi
How many seasons does it take to change the complexion of a high school football league? How many athletes?

As far as Santa Clarita Valley's all-powerful Foothill League goes, the answer to those questions may be, respectably, one and two.

One season to turn the pass-heavy, quarterback-dominated aerial onslaught that is SCV football into a league of running backs, and two tailbacks to do it.

For Canyon High, the running back is J.J. DiLuigi.

For Valencia High, it's Shane Vereen.

Individually, they are two of the most feared ball carriers in CIF Southern Section. Together, they turn the Foothill League into a defensive coordinator's bad dream.

DiLuigi rushed for 1,870 yards as a junior in 2005. He also caught 33 passes for 519 yards to lead Canyon to the CIF-SS Division II championship - its first section title since 1985.

And DiLuigi was a touchdown machine. He found the endzone an area-record 43 times, breaking the mark of 41 set by Hart running back Ted Iacenda in 1994.

Across town, Vereen inflicted his own brand of punishment on opposing defenses.

The then-junior averaged 9.7 yards per carry on his way to 1,638 yards and 28 touchdowns for the season. He also caught a team-high 52 passes for 898 yards and seven scores.

Perhaps what's most impressive about Vereen's rushing numbers is that he amassed them sharing the field with quarterback Michael Herrick, who became California's most prolific passer last season, finishing with exactly 11,000 yards for his career.

Flash forward to the summer of 2006 and it's easy to see why many are predicting this to be the year of the running back in the Foothill League.

"Historically, the SCV has been the valley of the quarterback," says Canyon head football coach Harry Welch. "But when you talk about Canyon, Valencia and Hart, what area has three better running backs than that? What other league in Southern California? Not any."

The third running back Welch speaks of is Hart's Delano Howell, who led the Indians with 762 rushing yards in an injury-plagued sophomore season in 2005.

Even amid Hart's traditional passing attack, a healthy Howell could add a third superstar to the local running back mix.

As if defense didn't have enough to worry about in Vereen and DiLuigi.

"J.J. runs the ball so hard, he's so tough," says Valencia football coach Larry Muir. "Even when he's being tackled, his feet keep kicking."

Says Saugus football coach Jason Bornn: "With J.J., there's no juking and jiving because he doesn't need it. He may not be the fastest in the league, but he has the ability to accelerate off a cut and he's an extremely hard runner."

The accolades flow as freely for Vereen.

"Shane's speed is his number one asset," says Bornn. "But he also has great vision and excellent lateral movement. He makes guys miss, sometimes more than once."

Says Muir: "With Shane, you just hope you can make him better. He's so explosive. He knows what to do with his speed."

Shane Vereen
Shane Vereen
Vereen (5-10, 180 pounds) and DiLuigi (5-9, 190 pounds) aren't big as running backs go, but tell that to the linemen and linebackers who try to take them down. Tell that to the defensive backs to have to catch them.

And try telling them.

"I just kind of laugh at that," DiLuigi says of the knocks on his size. "Everyone thinks you need to be a 6-foot, 200-pound running back. But guys like Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders weren't huge, and they did alright."

The pair's supposed lack of size certainly hasn't deterred college recruiters. DiLuigi verbally committed to play at BYU next fall and Vereen is entertaining offers from big-time programs such as California, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC.

"I'd like to make a decision before the season starts," Vereen says. "If a great opportunity presents itself, I'll jump on it."

The most pressing issue for both seniors at this point is, of course, the upcoming football season.

Vereen, who has seen his team fall in the section semifinals and quarterfinals as a sophomore and a junior, would like to lead the Vikings over the final hurdle.

DiLuigi would just like to maintain the status quo... sort of.

"I'm motivated," he says. "I want to prove I can do it twice, and it's always harder the second year. Everybody's coming after you."

Canyon is returning most of its offensive line, so DiLuigi has a lot to look forward to in 2006.

Vereen has his own reasons for optimism. With Herrick gone, the bulk of the offensive firepower will come from him.

"I think against certain schemes that will be true," Vereen says. "We have some plays to open things up, where I can catch the ball in the open and get some blocks - see what I can do."

It's a sound strategy, one Muir intends to employ, but one he must guard against as well.

"Shane does so many things well," he says. "But you can't make the rest of the team Vereen watchers. We can't be one-dimensional. We have to develop our quarterbacks."

Vereen and DiLuigi also play defensive back - it was DiLuigi who made the title-preserving tackle on Hart receiver Troy Yudin on the one-yard line as time expired in last year's 21-13 victory on the section title game.

"That last 20 seconds was the most amazing, but scariest time of my life," DiLuigi says.

If either of them has a preference, they aren't saying. DiLuigi says he likes the challenge of shutting receivers down but he relishes the contact of carrying the ball into a hole.

Vereen is likewise diplomatic.

"Offense is more calm and relaxed," he says. "We just try to cut up the defense. Defense is more hyped up. It's a crack-your-skull mentality."

Both runners agree that the best part of the game is scoring a touchdown.

"Putting points on the board is what it's all about," DiLuigi says. "It's like a weight lifting off of your shoulders. You know you're moving your oddslot team that much closer to victory."

At least once this season, one of those victories will come at the other running back's expense, perhaps with the league title hanging in the balance.

Valencia and Canyon are two of the favorites, along with Hart, to wear the SCV crown in 2006. The friendly rivalry between them is much more than personal. It's tied to team success.

"I know J.J. pretty well," Vereen says. "It's cool to have the competition. It pushes me that much more. It makes it easy to work hard."

DiLuigi watches Vereen, as well.

"Yeah, I caught myself doing that once last year," DiLuigi jokes. "I scored three touchdowns and then I heard he scored four and I said to myself, 'No way, he got more?'"

The pair won't have to look far to watch each other when Canyon hosts Valencia on November 9 for the final game of the regular season. On defense last year, Welch had DiLuigi shadow Vereen the entire game.

Vereen scored three touchdowns in the first half of that game, but DiLuigi finished with five in a 49-21 Cowboy win.

The running backs were the show then.

They will be again.
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