November 25, 2010 at 1:00 am

Sam Webb

Flint Northern tailback hits the books, rises in the rankings

As a senior, and despite sitting out two games with a high ankle sprain, Flint Northern tailback Thomas Rawls rushed for 1,585 yards and 19 touchdowns. (Allen Trieu/Scout.com)

If one were to poll the top high school scouts in the state regarding the top individual performances during the 2010 season, the name Thomas Rawls is destined to come up. The Flint Northern tailback had two scintillating 300 yard rushing performances in back-to-back weeks, and a 200-yard half in the final game of his prep career. As a result, the 5-foot-10, 215-pounder staked his claim as arguably the best high school back in Michigan.

Primarily a defensive player his first two years, there wasn't much buzz about Rawls as a college prospect heading into his junior campaign. He was a fast, physical, yet undersized linebacker prospect who didn't have the academic focus to garner major college attention. That all changed last year at the behest of a new coaching staff.

The new deal

When Northern's 80-year arch rival Flint Central closed its doors in 2009, former Central coach Fred Jackson Jr. took his program across town for an otherwise unthinkable merger. One of his top priorities was integrating Rawls into his new plan.

"When I was at Central I saw Thomas catch one of my best running backs after he broke a 70 yarder, Jackson recalled. "I was like, 'That's a hell of a linebacker!' I couldn't wait to meet him. But when I got to Northern one of the first things I did was talk to the athletic director. I said, 'I need a list of everybody's grades.'

When I saw Thomas' grades they were not where they should have been. So every time I saw him after that -- every time -- it was like, 'What are you doing in class? What are your grades like?' It was a constant thing."

Armed with the belief a student will only rise as high as the ceiling you place above him, Jackson immediately increased the expectations for his star protégé.

"We had a one-on-one meeting and then we talked numerous times after that," said Jackson. "My main focus was grades. I told him that I wasn't going to have waiver kids. We've got the (eligibility) waiver thing here in Michigan if you are under a 2.0 (GPA).

"I told him that I don't want that waiver stuff. I ruled it out. When I told him that, he believed it. He started getting better grades. If you check his transcripts from his freshman and sophomore years, you can see how much he improved in his junior year and his senior year. On his last report card he got a 3.0. Do you know how proud I was to see that? That's my guy! He's doing everything that we ask."

The prodding for classroom achievement is something Rawls admits he always heard from his family, but it took similar words from his coaches for him to have his light-bulb moment.

"I've had other good coaches in the past, but with Coach Jackson, (former Michigan defensive back standout) Coach Dre (Weathers), and the other coaches he brought over, it was different," Rawls said. "They pushed me more. They were tougher on me. They showed that they really cared. They cared about me as a person first and then a football player second. They never stopped preaching about academics, and that just made me go harder. It just brightened up my mind to the point where I was like, 'OK, I'm a young man about to become a man, so I now I've got to handle my business.'"

The payoff

The new Northern staff helped bring Rawls further to the attention of college recruiters by moving him to running back in the third game of his junior season. He responded by rushing for 1,056 yards and 16 touchdowns on the year. As a senior he simply exploded. Despite sitting out two games with a high ankle sprain Rawls rushed for 1,585 yards and 19 touchdowns. His year was highlighted by a 344-yard rushing effort against Saginaw Heritage in Week 4 and a 396-yard rushing effort against Bay City Central in Week 5.

As impressive as those outings were, his performance against Flint Southwestern in the season finale may have been even more memorable.

"For the Southwestern game the high ankle sprain wasn't healed, but he wanted to play so bad," said Jackson. "My dad, (Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson Sr.), came up for the game. Thomas was like, 'Your dad is here -- I've got to play.' This kid had 11 carries for 204 yards in the first half! My dad said, 'I haven't ever seen a kid run for 200 yards on one leg.' He was limping while running, but he still had that burst. I'm still excited just talking about it."

Scout.com Midwest recruiting analyst Allen Trieu is just as taken aback. A youngster that had been dubbed a "sleeper" prospect prior to the season had definitely served notice he was a high major player.

"He's a great back," Trieu said. "He is one of the toughest runners I've seen. He's very compact -- a bowling ball kind of kid who can break tackles and has a good burst. While most people see him as just an inside battering ram, I think he proved to me over the summer and the course of this year that he has legit breakaway speed. He's also very underrated as a receiver out of the backfield. He might not be the tallest back, but I think we've seen recently that's an overrated quality for a running back."

That description is eerily reminiscent of those given of former Flint Southwestern star and current Alabama standout Mark Ingram during his prep days. Last year's Heisman Trophy winner held the Flint record for rushing yards in a game with 358 before Rawls' near-400-yard performance this season.

The two ball-carriers definitely have more in common than city they hail from.

"I think Rawls compares favorably to Ingram," Trieu said. "They both have similar builds and running styles. I think Ingram picks his way and is more of a slasher, whereas Rawls really sees a crease and hits it. I don't think you want to say Thomas Rawls will win a Heisman, but coming out of high school there are definite similarities there."

Such superlatives about Rawls' ability and potential don't jibe with the his rating as the No. 78 tailback in the country by Scout.com. So what gives?

"We rate guys conservatively who have not fully qualified yet," said Trieu. "So he's about ranked 13th in the state and a three-star. I think he could be higher, but our national rule across the board is we wait until they've qualified. Purely on the merits of his talent and what he's done throughout his career though, I think he's a top-10 player in the state and borderline four-star-type kid. He's had a fantastic senior season."

A few college coaches are taking the same wait-and-see approach regarding Rawls qualifying status. Though he has made substantial improvement in the classroom, he must still improve his test score. If he does, offers from Iowa and Michigan could join the ones he holds from Toledo, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati. The Wolverines have virtually promised they will extend a scholarship.

"Me and (Michigan assistant) Coach Fred Jackson, we've built a good relationship," said Rawls. "He's a real good, honest, and upfront person. And I can tell you this -- he sure can recruit. I went down there for the Wisconsin game and I was talking to him. He said I am very high on their list. When I get these test scores right, I feel like it'll be over (regarding a scholarship offer). In his words, I'm his guy. They are very high on me.

"I was talking to Rich Rodriguez and we're going to set up an official visit for maybe December or early January, he told me."

The test score looms large for other potential suitors as well. Rawls is exhausting every available option to improve his readiness. His coach plans to keep on encouraging and pushing until the goal is reached.

"It has come to a point where depending on what he did in the October test, even if it has to come out of my pocket, I'm about to get him some private tutoring to make sure that he can pass this test," Jackson Jr. said. "This is a special kid and a special back and I don't think people understand that yet, but they will."

For the moment Rawls plans to take official visits to five schools. However, he is open to changing his itinerary should other programs decide to enter the fray.

"I just really want to take my time," Rawls said. "I feel like I'm very underrated right now. I really just want to see where the peak of my recruitment is -- the point where I feel like, okay no more schools going to offer."

Even if new suitors do come calling, they clearly will have a steep hill to climb.

"I'm going to wink my eye a couple of times about this, but let's just say I'm thinking about staying close to home (to play college football)," he said.

Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the “Michigan Insider” morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA.

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