When Corn Elder arrived at Ensworth as a freshman in 2009, coach Ricky Bowers wasn't sure what position he would play.
Bowers eventually put Elder at tailback, proving to be a good decision considering that he ranks 12th among the state's career rushing leaders entering tonight's Division II-AA championship against Memphis University School in Cookeville.
"We had (Corn) at quarterback a little bit early on, and we weren't certain whether he would be a running back or a receiver or whatever because his size was a concern," Bowers said. "Our quarterback, Andrew (Bowers) got hurt as a freshman and didn't get to play, so we played Corn at quarterback (on the freshman team.)"
The 5-foot-10, 165-pound Elder has rambled for 6,144 rushing yards during his three years with the varsity. Former Ensworth running back Orleans Darkwa (6,338), now at Tulane, and former DCA running back Lorenza Edwards (6,553 yards) are the only backs from Nashville with more career yards, and Elder is 195 yards from passing Darkwa.
Darkwa and former Ensworth quarterback Tavarres Jefferson set the rushing standards high for Elder. Jefferson won the Division II-AA Mr. Football award in 2008 before signing with Middle Tennessee State.
"They have been a great influence on me," Elder said. "My freshman year I got to watch Orleans play, but we're kind of two different backs. He's more of a power back. I knew Tavarres because his family is from the same place where my family is from in East Tennessee, and I got to watch him a couple of times. He plays more like me. He's more elusive."
Montgomery Bell Academy coach Marty Euverard, a former Oakland coach, said Elder's running style reminds him of former Riverdale running back Eric Locke, who won two Class 5A Mr. Football awards at Riverdale in 1996 and 1997 before signing with Alabama.
"(Corn) is a guy that can change the game on any play," Euverard said. "He's one of the most dynamic backs that I've seen playing. It's his speed and ability to stop and go and change directions and not really lose any momentum or any speed. He never really takes a big shot either."
Elder has 78 career rushing touchdowns, ranking him ninth in state history. He has led the Tigers (12-0) to two straight Division II-AA titles.
Battle Ground Academy coach Roc Batten, a former Ensworth defensive coordinator, describes Elder as a fierce competitor with the leadership abilities of a quarterback.
"He has that, 'I will not be denied' mentality," Batten said. "It's a mentality that we're not going to lose. I watched him as a freshman do that in a game against MBA when I was (at Ensworth.) He told the team, 'We're going to win and take the drive down and win the game.' He'll come into the huddle and say that to the team and the kids will follow him."
Elder, who won the past two DII-AA Mr. Football awards, rushed for 1,642 yards as a sophomore and 2,080 as a junior. He has 2,422 yards and 36 rushing touchdowns this season for the Tigers, who are ranked 10th nationally by USA TODAY.
Bowers believes Ensworth's offensive line has much to do with Elder's success. Last year when he suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter during a 48-10 win over Baylor in the DII-AA championship, backup Rico Watson rushed for 221 yards and three touchdowns.
But Tigers offensive tackle Nick Brown said Elder often makes the line look good.
"We'll think we're going to block it perfect, and all five of us miss our block and somehow Corn gains 20 yards when there's five people running straight at him," Brown said. "I think Corn has a special ability to get away from people. If I was Corn, I wouldn't like getting hit every single play that I carried the ball so I think him not wanting to get crushed every play also helps on that."
Ensworth's most successful running play this season probably has been the outside zone, which is similar to a sweep.
"In the Brentwood Academy game we ran that play maybe 30 times," Elder said. "Maybe 10 times in a row, and it kept working. Our line blocks well. I give a lot of credit to them. Our tight end, Xavier Forrest, has the down block and he perfected that in that game."
Elder, whose most recent 40-yard dash time was a 4.42, rushed for a career-high 307 yards and two touchdowns in the 20-0 win over BA on ESPNU six weeks ago.
Former Brentwood Academy coach Carlton Flatt, who won 10 state titles before retiring after 34 seasons in 2006, was skeptical about Elder early in his career due to his lack of size, but has since changed his mind.
"There was a time when maybe I didn't think he was going to be big enough," Flatt said. "So early on I thought he was OK, but not great. But now I might think he's great. I think he has a real feel for football. He's able to find that little hole and get upfield."
He has nine major college offers and took his first official visit to UCLA two weeks ago. He plans to visit Ohio State in December.
Barton Simmons, a national recruiting analyst for 247 Sports, doesn't believe Elder's lack of size will be an issue in college.
"I've never been a guy, at least over the past two years, that's had any doubt that he can play major college football and be a major factor," Simmons said. "I think the question is, 'What's his role going to be?' He's not a true every-down back on the next level, but if you get him in the right system and get him the ball in the right ways he can be a kid that dominates in BCS level football."
Simmons believes Elder is ideal to play in the slot and could be an asset as a receiver. He's a good fit for jet sweeps, plays where the back gets a running start before taking the ball on the outside.
"You just need an offense that puts him in space," Simmons said. "If you get Corn Elder one-on-one with a defender, it's as good as over."