Thomas Jefferson running back's relentless recovery leads to regular-season success
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Thomas Jefferson head coach Bill Cherpak preaches “team” over anything else to his players.
“That's the key to the whole program because you want your younger kids to know the expectations, and feel what the older kids are feeling,” Cherpak said.
“When it's their turn, they know how to handle it.”
No player may embody that message more than junior running back Austin Kemp, who is the team's leading rusher with 622 yards.
“I just try to add on (to the offense) because it's all 11 guys, it's not just one player,” Kemp said. “I try to play hard and go 100 percent every play.”
Kemp lettered as a freshman at middle linebacker and fullback, but missed all last season due to injuries.
Cherpak watched Kemp rehab relentlessly, and believed, even after missing a whole year, he was ready for a heavy varsity dosage on both sides of the ball.
“His experience (as a freshman) was invaluable. Nine times out of 10 when a kid misses his sophomore year, he's going to be behind going into his junior year,” Cherpak said. “He worked so hard in the offseason and was really ready to go to hit the ground running (this year).”
Last week against Albert Gallatin, Kemp ran for 137 yards on nine carries and added a score.
With a 5-foot-11, 210-pound frame, Kemp has the physical tools to make him a successful runner and linebacker, but it's his work in the film room, not the weight room, that gives him a keener sense of his surroundings on the field.
“We demand a lot mentally from our kids,” Cherpak said. “He understands how each play is blocked, like where the double teams are and the angles we are blocking. He understands and knows all this, so that helps him as a runner be able to determine what's coming.”
Kemp added: “You have to follow your line because in our offense if you follow your line you're going to make it to the promised land, as coach says.”
Kemp has seven touchdowns so far, and after five weeks, the Jaguars are undefeated with one of the best rushing attacks in the WPIAL, racking up a total of 1,263 yards or more 250 yards per game.
As good as Kemp and Thomas Jefferson have started, there's still a lot to be accomplished between now and the ultimate team goal of another championship.
Kemp knows there's no time to be satisfied.
“You have to work hard every week and you can't take it easy,” Kemp said. “I try to get better every week.”
Overall, Cherpak believes Kemp's selflessness and modesty inspires everyone in the locker room — whether he knows it or not.
“I don't think he realizes that he leads by example,” Cherpak said, “but he definitely does.”
Justin Criado is a freelance writer.
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