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Derek Taylor: Kennedy Award race more challenging than usual to predict

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's not exactly on the level of prematurely projecting the 2016 presidential election, but the 2013 Kennedy Award race is well underway before any team has even played three games.

The jockeying for position began by the time the sun rose on Saturday, Aug. 31, the morning after Meadow Bridge senior running back Jake Parker ran for 447 yards in the Wildcats' opening-week win over Van.

By Sept. 4, the Register-Herald named Parker its Player of the Week. Its online announcement of the award win included subtext asking the question, "Could the 2013 Kennedy Award go to a player from a small Class A-Coalfield Conference team?"

In truth, the answer is, "Not likely."

Parker threatened the state single-season record for rushing attempts as a junior and will likely do the same in 2013. Provided he stays free from injury he'll probably finish with well more than 2,000 rushing yards and land on the Class A All-State team like he did a year ago.

There hasn't been a Class A player to win the award since Jeff Swisher from Sistersville in 1986, the same season he crashed the pages of Sports Illustrated following an obnoxiously impressive performance against New Matamoras Frontier, Ohio, when he scored nine touchdowns and 62 total points in a 76-8 win.

Does 27 years of small-school Kennedy futility rule out Parker from contention? Of course not, but the modern Class A is not what it was in the mid-1980s. There are fewer schools, smaller rosters, fewer players and less talent overall across the state. The schedule Meadow Bridge faces is a detractor to his candidacy as well. Parker has 648 yards and nine touchdowns on 53 carries in the Wildcats' 2-0 start.

Another Class A player - Madonna's do-it-all quarterback Ross Comis - might stand a better shot at a Kennedy win, but his chances are only slightly better than Parker's. The Blue Dons (2-0), ranked second in this week's Daily Mail Class A Poll and the 2012 state runners-up, play host to No. 1 Wheeling Central (2-0) on Saturday night in Weirton, a game that will have more attention paid to it by sportswriters across the state than any Parker will play in during the regular season.

Most often it's as much about eyes as it is about stats when it comes to the Kennedy, which is why - after just two weeks - it's another Beckley-area player that might be the early frontrunner.

Oak Hill senior Jalen Jones has had standout performances in the Red Devils' two wins and has already run for 504 yards and seven TDs. Perhaps more importantly he's done it on the road and a good bit away from Fayette County, at Elkins and at Musselman, to be exact. Both of those opponents were playoff teams a year ago.

This means that Jones - a 2012 All-State player who ran for 2,194 yards and 27 TDs a year ago - is a household name in the sport, and has taken his show on the road into two separate regions of the state and impressed that area's voting members of the West Virginia Sports Writers Association, the same people who vote for the Kennedy Award in November.

Another key to Kennedy winning is team performance. Every Kennedy winner has reached the playoff quarterfinals since 1989, when Morgantown's David Mayfield won without his team reaching the postseason. That was two years before the SSAC expanded the playoff field from eight to 16 teams. More recently, two winners - Fairmont Senior's Kyle Allard in 2006 and Scott's Jordan Roberts the following year - essentially clinched their Kennedy awards with impressive out-of-area road performances in the quarterfinals, at Nitro and Berkeley Springs, respectively.

There have been six Kennedy Award winners from schools in Southern West Virginia in the past eight years. While there are more voters in Charleston than anywhere else, that doesn't mean that a Southern West Virginia voting bias exists. On the contrary, there are fewer voters in the Southern half of the state because there are fewer news outlets.

The North has daily newspapers and sports staffs in Wheeling, Parkersburg, Morgantown, Fairmont, Clarksburg, Martinsburg and Elkins. Each of those publications employs at least three writers that are WVSWA members and thus have a stake in Kennedy voting.

The South, on the other hand, has two daily papers in Charleston and individual papers in Huntington, Beckley and Bluefield. The Williamson Daily News' sports department is a one-man operation, and the Logan Banner does not belong to the WVSWA.

The actual North-to-South ratio of voting members is 39-31 in favor of the North, so - once and for all - there is no Southern/Charleston bias when it comes to choosing Kennedy Award winners.

The early jump at position in the Kennedy race -- George Washington faithful commented to me in the preseason that senior running back Draven Riffe could be a dark-horse candidate -- might be a result of the wide-open field for the award this season. In each of the past two seasons GW's Ryan Switzer entered the season as the prohibitive favorite, and he ran away with the Kennedy both times in landslide results.

In 2010, South Charleston's Tyler Harris entered the season as the favorite since he had won it the year before as a junior. Harris did not win his senior year, in no small part because many voters left them off their ballots entirely in the fallout to SC's brawl with Hurricane at the end of their Class AAA playoff quarterfinal. Harris actually had more first-place votes than Magnolia's Justin Fox, who ended up winning the Kennedy.

There hasn't been this big of a guessing game regarding the Kennedy since Harris' winning season of 2009. That's a lifetime when it comes to prep sports, as no one even playing on Friday nights this season was even in high school at that time.

There's a long, long way to go before this is sorted out. From the early indicators, however, this year's Kennedy Award race could turn into one of the most interesting prep football debates the state has seen in years.

Contact Preps Editor Derek Taylor at or 304-348-5170. Follow him on Twitter @ItsreallyDT.



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