Well-rounded Whaley returns to running back for 3-time state champion Smyrna

Being behind Will Knight on Smyrna’s depth chart has allowed Stephen Whaley to round out his game. Delaware State News file photo

SMYRNA — Stephen Whaley averaged a touchdown every four carries as a freshman in 2015.

Normally a performance earns a football player more time at running back. But there were some extenuating circumstances at Smyrna High the last couple of years.

Will Knight was only one year older than Whaley. So with the leading rusher in Delaware high school history in the same backfield, Whaley’s position was switched for his sophomore and junior seasons.

Now with Knight at Old Dominion University, Whaley is back at running back for the three-time defending state champion Eagles as the state opened fall sports practice on Wednesday afternoon.

“I don’t worry about what people say about we don’t have Will this year,” Whaley said. “Every year, everybody does their part so we can go to the championship game. I just think about it how everyone is going to do their part so we can succeed.”

There are a lot of schools where Whaley would have been a four-year starter at running back. But being behind Knight on the depth chart has allowed Whaley to round out his game.

He was a starting wide receiver for the Eagles in 2016 and 2017. He had four touchdowns as a sophomore, including the game-winner when Smyrna scored 22 fourth-quarter points to rally for a key Henlopen Conference Northern Division win over Sussex Central.

Whaley also caught one touchdown apiece in each of Smyrna’s two playoff victories a year ago.

He didn’t play wide receiver the whole season, though. Due to an injury to Knight that kept him out for a few contests, Whaley returned to running back.

“It helped me a lot and got me back into the routine of being a running back,” Whaley said. “When I went to running back it was like old memories. It felt easy to me. So this year, it’s really not hard to go back to running back again.”

Whaley was the lead back for a 30-18 win over Irvington, N.J. as Knight was sidelined. Whaley finished with two rushing touchdowns and three two-point conversion runs.

Smyrna coach Mike Judy called that game a turning point for not just Whaley but the rest of the Eagles, who were able to win without their star player.

“The Irvington game was a huge game for us because it forced the team to not just look for Will to bail them out,” Whaley said. “Will would be the first to admit, not one player can win you a game. People that do say that probably never played football in a while.”

The Eagles are deep in the backfield with junior Marcus Cajuste also expected to see some carries. Then there’s freshman Wayne Knight, Will Knight’s younger brother, who Judy said could play running back or slot receiver.

So there’s a chance Whaley still might line up at wide receiver at times this year.

“We put a premium on trying to get the best players on the field in some capacity,” Judy said. “If five tremendous running backs show up, they’re not all going to be running backs. A guy like Stephen, who has been a running back all his life, now has college-level receiving skills so now he can possibly get looks as a receiver or a running back. He’s doubled his market value as a recruit.”

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