Desmond Pittman is a major conflict.
A 5-foot-11-inch, 245-pound senior tailback at Ooltewah High School, Pittman provides the Owls with a unique combination of power and speed and more than a few nightmares for opposing defenses.
Simply put, Pittman is a beast.
He is a preseason all-state running along with Beech’s highly-touted Jalen Hurd – a 6-3, 230-pound University of Tennessee 2014 commitment – in the Class 5A backfield selected by Murphy Fair’s Tennessee High School Football magazine.
Hurd rushed for 3,357 yards and 43 touchdowns as a junior, including a monster 451-yard, seven-touchdown blitz in the Buccaneers’ 56-35 romp against Columbia Central in the state championship game. Hurd gained 1,606 yards and scored 23 touchdowns in his sophomore season.
Two weeks before Hurd demolished Columbia, Pittman gained 107 yards on 22 carries, all but three coming in the first half. Pittman pulled his right groin late in the second quarter and eventually was pulled from the game early in the third.
“I was very disappointed,” said Pittman, who gained 1,476 yards on 243 carries with 16 touchdowns in 2012, including 373 yards and three scores in the Owls’ three playoff games.
Columbia rubbed out Ooltewah’s 13-0 early lead and went on to win, 31-13, at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Columbia beat Powell, 22-17, the following week in the semifinals.
Memories of the Columbia loss are nine months in Pittman’s rear view mirror, and that’s good by him.
Did he study the game tape?
“No,” Pittman said.
“I didn’t want to watch it,” he said.
A lot has changed within Ooltewah’s program since last November.
Owls coach Shannon Williams resigned to accept a job in Florida.
Mac Bryan, the former co-offensive coordinator and line coach at UT-Martin, got on board as Ooltewah’s new head coach.
Pittman took the coaching change in stride.
“It was just a different person coming in to coach us,” Pittman said. “But we basically had the same team. I knew whoever we got would be the best coach for us.”
Bryan wants to take Ooltewah’s offense to an even higher level of effectiveness and will speed up the game to make that happen so as to exploit Pittman as the team’s most dominating weapon.
At UT-Martin last season, the Skyhawks ranked second or third in four offensive categories – scoring (33.5 points per game), total offense (429.3 yards per game), passing (299.5 ypg) and passing efficiency (150.3) – in the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Skyhawk rushing attack ranked last in the nine-team league.
“We had pretty good backs (at UT-M), none of them were like Desmond,” Bryan said. “We had two good receivers and a fifth-year quarterback who started for three years and was in the system for five. We very much became a throw, throw, throw team.”
In Pittman, quarterback Brody Binder and receiver Mike Williams, opposing defenses will have to pick their poison against the Owls.
At the same time, opponents must prepare for a larger dose of Pittman.
“Desmond has to get his touches running and catching,” Bryan said.
Owl receivers had 87 catches – Binder threw all 87 passes – last season. Pittman had no catches, which meant all his 1,476 yards came on the ground.
That’s about to change because Bryan believes his bullish back can be a dynamite player in space, as well as between the tackles.
“The tailback is vital to the spread offense,” Bryan said. “You can do many things with him if he’s versatile. The good thing we’ve found out about Desmond is that he has very good hands.”
What does Bryan think will happen when – and not if – Pittman snags passes in the flat?
“It’s not that (defenses) have to get to him,” the coach said, “but you’ve got to do something with him when you get there. A 160-pound defensive back is going to be outweighed by about 80 pounds.
“It’s a difficult thing to tackle him in the open field. I mean, its’ hard to step in front of that guy. There’s going to be a collision and he won’t back off. He enjoys the physical contact.”
A dual-threat Pittman places defensive coordinators in a quandary and sets up late-night film sessions when Ooltewah pops up on their schedule.
“It gives them a predicament,” Bryan said. “The option game, especially in the spread, is based on putting the defender in conflict. Take one defender and put him in conflict with the dive, the quarterback or the pitch. Same goes for the passing game. Is the defender going to drop into coverage or does he come up.
“What you do with a running back with Desmond’s ability in open space is put the defense in conflict. What are you going to do? How many are you going to put in the box? There is the conflict.”
Pittman, who weighed in at 245 pounds – Bryan wants him down to 235 for the season – and ran a 4.62 40-yard dash at Tennessee’s summer camp, is pumped about his expanded role with the offense. He said Vols coaches were impressed with his size and speed.
The hard-running back says there are significant differences in Williams’ offense and the one installed by Bryan.
“I get out of the backfield more to catch the ball,” he said. “I’m in on more plays than before. I probably caught (no) passes last year (he’s right about that). It was just run the football.”
That wasn’t a bad thing, though.
After back-to-back wins moved the Owls to 4-3, Pittman hit his stride by finding another gear on the stamina scale.
Facing rival Bradley Central in a key District 5-AAA game in Cleveland, Pittman erupted by rushing for 255 yards on 34 workmanlike carries and scored three touchdowns in a 34-23 victory.
The next week Pittman gained 228 yards on 19 carries and had two touchdowns as Ooltewah thumped Rhea County, 33-6.
“Those were about the best games I played all year,” Pittman said.
Opponents became acutely aware of Pittman’s late-season surge.
“I started seeing seven-eight guys in the box,” he said. “That really started in Game 9 and it was like everybody was saying, ‘Hey, we have to stack up on the ball.’ ”
Pittman closed out the regular season with a 183-yard, two-touchdown effort in a 56-7 rout of district foe Walker Valley. Ooltewah, which scored 35 second-quarter points, ended with 352 rushing yards, averaging 7.6 yards per carry.
In three playoff games, Pittman gained – in succession – 160 yards, 106 and 107 on a combined 92 carries for an average of 4.0 yards per carry and 124.3 yards per game.
With Pittman churning up chunks of yardage, the Owls’ amassed 2,533 rushing yards in a 9-4 season. The team averaged 194.8 rushing yards per game and Pittman had 113.5 each Friday night.
Bryan points out one aspect of running that Pittman uses to his advantage.
“He’s got great eyes,” Bryan said. “He can see the zones, see the cuts. You can rep that and coach the initial read, but there comes a point when the guy either sees it or doesn’t.”
Sharp eyes have Pittman reaching for lofty goals.
“I’m going to try for 3,000 yards rushing,” he said. “I think catching more passes will make me an even bigger threat and open up some more runs. Defenses have more to worry about. And I’ve got to do all this year what I did in the last five or six games of last season.”
To reach his goal Pittman can’t bank on short bursts through the line. He’ll have to break off some long runs, but considers himself a good breakaway threat.
“If I get into the open field,” he said, “it’s over.”
Another goal for Pittman is to play college football and perhaps achieve a career in the NFL.
To make college football come to pass, Pittman has to bolster his academic standing.
Pittman has issues with his core curriculum and has yet to make a qualifying score on the ACT and may have to attend junior college to further upgrade his grade-point average.
“What Desmond is going through happens a lot,” said Bryan, who has extensive recruiting experience from his college stops at UT-Martin, Pikeville (Ky.) College, Lees McRae, Newberry, UT-Chattanooga and Southern Miss. “Desmond is figuring things out academically. He’s going to be OK.”
And if there’s one thing Pittman is fighting hard to prevent in his own future is prolonged academic conflict.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)