East Lincoln wide receiver Jesse Earnhardt was due for a record-setting season.
Earnhardt was record-setting and state championship MVP quarterback Garrett Young’s favorite target.
“He’s been the QB and I’ve been the receiver for a good 10 years now,” Earnhardt said. “We’re so used to each other, so used to being on the right page. There’s been the consistency of us practicing day in and day out for years.”
Earnhardt’s 78 receptions for 1,352 yards and 13 touchdowns smashed Lincoln County’s single season receiving yards record, set by former Mustang Keith Rendleman with 1,202 receiving yards in 2008. The Mustangs had 13 different players catch passes during their 16-0 and 2A state championship season.
“If we hadn’t been so well rounded at wide receiver he could have had an even bigger year,” East Lincoln head coach Mike Byus said. “We were able to distribute the ball to different folks and had an abundance of wide receivers. We figured that he would catch at least 60 balls this year, and we had targets that didn’t even get onto the field.”
The Mustangs had a second 1,000-yard receiver in freshman Chazz Surratt, and Tyler Brock’s 48 receptions for 877 yards neared the mark.
“We have a very good receiving corps,” Earnhardt said. “If Garrett couldn’t come to me he’d go to Tyler. If he couldn’t go to Tyler he’d go to Chazz. When they succeeded it got me fired up. I loved when they succeeded and caught big passes and touchdowns. It was awesome to watch them.”
Earnhardt finished the 2011 season with 39 receptions for 474 yards and five touchdowns — third on the team behind seniors Antwaine McLean (47-904 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Bubba McDowell (17-499 yards, eight touchdowns). He said the effort from the team in the offseason helped contribute to this year’s success.
“I was real serious in the offseason,” Earnhardt said. “I knew after last year I had more left in me. I was working out in weight room, on the field. Any time the team got together to over team stuff everyone always came and showed good commitment. Commitment in the offseason was good from everyone.”
Byus said Earnhardt’s work ethic that made the younger players on the Mustangs’ roster take notice.
“He was a quiet leader,” Byus said. “He would run his routes and the kids saw him every time. You could see them, they didn’t have to say it — they knew they were watching a perfect route. I can’t think of a time when he wasn’t giving 100 percent effort.”
Byus said Earnhardt took plenty of abuse from the Mustangs’ opponents’ defensive backs this year.
“What people don’t understand is how tough he is,” Byus said. “He took a lot of shots this year catching 78 passes.”
Earnhardt had his best game of the season when he caught only three passes for 159 yards and three touchdowns against North Lincoln in the sixth week of the season. He caught seven passes for 82 yards, both game highs, in the Mustangs’ 24-20 win over Tarboro in the 2A state championship game at Wake Forest University on Dec. 1.
“It was awesome once you stepped on Wake Forest’s field,” he said. “The environment was unbelievable. The fans were great — it was so loud in that place that you couldn’t really hear anything.”
Earnhardt said he won’t be quick to forget the Mustangs’ unprecedented 2012 season.
“I’ll remember it forever,” he said. “It was an awesome experience. I’m glad I got to be a part of it with this team, in particular. This team was a very special group of guys who have been together for years, ever since we played little league ball. We stuck together. We all wanted to accomplish this someday, and our dreams came true.”