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Prep football: Nitro sophomore running back is growing up

NITRO, W.Va. -- Nitro gained a reputation as a team that likes to throw the ball around the field when the team was making regular appearances in the Class AAA playoffs in the late 1990s and mid-2000s.

Second-year Nitro Coach Derek Midkiff never played in one of those playoff games during his time as a quarterback for the Wildcats in the early part of the last decade, but he knows the system that worked so well when Scott Tinsley was in charge of the offense.

That offensive style Midkiff is so familiar with will adapt this season with the emergence of sophomore Brayden Underwood as a legitimate threat in the running game.

Underwood ran for 1,015 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman last season when the Wildcats went 2-8, with wins against cross-river rival St. Albans and Lincoln County. Midkiff had the chance to coach Underwood in middle school at Andrew Jackson prior to both of them arriving at Nitro in 2012 and saw Underwood turn potential into talent in his first season of prep football.

"He had the potential and we knew he had the potential even when he was at A.J.," Midkiff said. "It's just there were some other things he had to correct. In two-and-a-half years of knowing him he has grown so much. He has grown more than any other athlete I've been around in my young coaching career. Football has made him a better person, a better player and a better student all the way around. I couldn't be more proud of an individual than I am of Brayden Underwood."

This season, Midkiff said, he plans on adding a lot more for the running game to the Nitro playbook to accommodate his talented sophomore. That will rely less on speed and more on Underwood's ability to effectively use his eyes and footwork to get through holes and avoid defenders.

"He's a vision runner," Midkiff said. "We're looking forward to a little bit of power out of him because he's been probably one of our top two or three guys in the weight room. That's saying a lot because we've had over 40 in the weight room consistently. He's got a bright future."

Nitro's two wins in 2012 might not appear on paper to be significant, but with the Wildcats coming off an 0-10 season in 2011 and a three-year period that saw just two wins, Underwood said those wins have helped create a buzz that might have been missing with previous teams.

"We're all working hard and we're getting better," he said. "After the season we had, just winning two games, everyone is on board."

Part of getting everyone on board, for Midkiff, has meant getting athletes from other sports at Nitro to come out for football. It's a process, but there are several players making the transition to football from other athletic endeavors that could play big part in Nitro's offense in addition to Underwood

Senior Tyler Barton, also a basketball and baseball player, will start at quarterback this season after not playing since his freshman year. Barton said he was able to work with his receivers in the offseason last winter - also known as basketball season for Barton - to get a head start on learning the offense.

"I'm just trying to get the timing back down," Barton said. "It is an adjustment to get back. I think it's been really fun just to get back out and play."

Barton said having a former Nitro quarterback as a coach has helped ease his transition into the role of starting quarterback.

"It really helps because (Midkiff) has been there before," he said. "He's been in every situation that I'm probably going to be in this year. He knows. So whenever I get to a situation where maybe I'm not so sure what to do he can help me through that with practice."

Another player new to the Wildcats football team from the basketball team is junior Buck Shepherd. Midkiff said Shepherd will play wide receiver and compares favorably to the recently graduated Ethan Clark, an All-State receiver for the Wildcats last season.

"Buck is a tremendous talent," Midkiff said. "Athletically I think he is probably on par with Ethan. He's a whole lot stronger than Ethan was and he catches the ball real well."

Nitro opens the season at home a week from Friday when it faces Poca.

Contact sportswriter Tom Bragg at or 304-348-4871. Follow him on Twitter @TomBraggSports.

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