By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ELWOOD, Ind. —
Two years ago, a 5-foot-9 sophomore running back walked into Elwood coach Marty Wells’ office and announced his goal for his first season as a starter.
Including the sectional, that’s an average of 180 yards per game. The kid had gained 860 yards on 134 carries in a part-time role the year before, and Wells knew he had the ability.
“I told him it was good to have goals,” Wells said last week. “But your goal needs to be attainable.”
Sammy Mireles reached his unattainable goal, and then he exceeded it.
He finished that year with 2,071 yards, averaging 207.1 per game, and scored 16 touchdowns. When the season was over, he set a new goal. To rush for 2,000 yards again.
Despite the fact the Panthers lost three of the five starters on the offensive line, Mireles exceeded his goal again. He gained 2,460 yards this season, averaging 223.6 per game, and scored 23 touchdowns. Along the way, he helped lead Elwood to a 9-3 record and a Central Indiana Conference championship.
He’s also been named The Herald Bulletin’s Offensive Football Player of the Year.
“That’s his mentality, I guess,” Wells said of the running back’s ability to surpass even his own standards. “He’s not going to be sold short.”
It’s an interesting choice of words because so much of Mireles’ game is difficult to measure. Or explain.
At 170 pounds, he lacks the prototypical size to be a power back. Yet, Wells said the thing that sets Mireles back from any other running back he’s coached is his ability to gain yards after contact.
One scouting website lists Mireles’ 40-yard dash time as 4.5 seconds. That’s good but hardly elite. It’s certainly not fast enough to have him considered a speed back at one of the Division I universities where he hopes to one day play.
Yet, once he gets outside, he’s rarely caught. Even during last year’s postseason, when the Panthers played against a slew of future Division I defenders at Fort Wayne Bishop Luers.
So how does all this add up? How does a running back who’s too small to run over people refuse to go down? And how does a back who lacks elite speed refuse to be caught from behind?
The answer lies in those goals Mireles continues to set for himself each season.
It’s something that can’t be measured on a scale or with a stopwatch.
Heart. And desire.
“I told everyone I was going to have that many yards,” Mireles said. “It kind of pushed me, to make sure I get it.”
There are other, more tangible, reasons for Mireles’ success.
Wells talks about the way he runs behind his pads, keeping his base and pad level low and making it difficult for a defender to get a clean shot.
Call up video of Mireles running on the Internet, and some more clues are revealed. He’s elusive in an unconventional way. He makes the same cuts and reversals every running back displays, but there’s another level of body control at work.
Mireles has a way of sensing contact. His shoulders constantly are on a swivel, swaying left or right to avoid a direct hit and slip out of a defender’s grasp.
Mireles’ game tape is filled with defenders grabbing just a piece of his jersey before he pulls away or missing all together and grasping at air.
The running back makes no secret of the fact he soon hopes to be doing the same thing on Saturday afternoons at the college game’s highest level.
He and Wells have sent out 195 bio sheets in the NAIA, NCAA Division II, Football Championship Subdivision and the Mid-American Conference. Wells expects by this spring or early summer coaches from many of those schools will be beating a path to Mireles’ door.
They’ll ask Mireles about his small stature, and he’ll have an answer at the ready.
“Being smaller, it just means I work harder,” he said. “It gives me more motivation, and it makes me work harder.”
Mireles already has set a new goal for his senior season.
The number was not chosen at random. Cathedral’s Otis Shannon owns the state’s career rushing record. He gained 7,560 yards between 1997 and 2000.
Mireles needs 2,169 yards next season to match that total. If he exceeds his goal again, he’ll have gained more rushing yards than any player in Indiana high school history.
“I wouldn’t be the one to want to sell him short,” Wells said. “Because he’s going to prove you wrong.”
There’s another piece to Mireles’ goal.
He wants to play Division I football, and he’d like to play close enough to home for his friends and family to watch him play. That means the MAC is his best option, with schools like Ball State and Miami (Ohio) within easy driving distance.
With his measurable working against him, Mireles could be a hard sell to coaches.
Some might even call his goal … unattainable.
But it won’t be Wells. Not anymore.
“If somebody takes a shot on him at a Division I school, they’re not gonna be sorry,” he said. “People fall in love too much with height and weight. I don’t think they take a look at what’s inside.”