It is a well known fact that an enormous amount of football talent comes out of the state of California every year. Idaho fans know this very well, as a large proportion of the Vandal roster is filled with California athletes.
But something many Vandal fans may not realize is that within California there are pockets where the density of talent is exceptional. One of those pockets happens to be the heralded Big VIII conference – a collection of schools that annually are among the best teams in the state, compete in bowl games, and send volumes of their seniors off to the college ranks. Centennial, Norco, Corona and the rest have proven to be hotbeds of talent for college recruiters, having produced players like Toby Gerhart (a star at Stanford) and a host of others in recent years, including current Vandal runningback Ryan Bass who transferred to Idaho from Arizona State following a tremendous high school career at Centennial (4-star prospect by Scout, ranked #31 nationally).
New to this League is Martin Luther King High School, located in Riverside. King is a relatively new school and has only been in the league for a couple years, and they are in the process of building depth and talent to compete at this level.
However, it's not like they were without there own standouts this year - players who were competitive in the Big VIII and ready to take their game to the next levels.
Among the leaders for the Wolves was senior tailback Todd Handley (5-8, 178, 4.44-40). Going into the season Handley was ranked among the top five runningbacks in the league, and earlier this month reports started leaking out that Handley had committed to the Vandal football program. GoVandals.net contacted King High School to followup on the reports, and the head football coach spoke about his star tailback.
"Todd got a lot of offers from some smaller schools," head football coach Ken Mushinskie told GoVandals.net Friday afternoon. "Northern Colorado, and some schools back east. The University of Nebraska offered him, and the University of Idaho offered him too. He took the trip to Idaho and he loved it; he immediately said that's where he wants to be and committed."
His selection criteria, much like the speedster himself, was unique. "He said he wants to play on the west coast, and Idaho is kind of on the west coast. Ironically, he also said he wants to play somewhere where it snows!"
Now, that may truly be a first among the variety of reasons for choosing a college destination. However, the more pertinent reasons that went into his college selection process soon followed.
"I said if that's where you feel comfortable, then that's the place you want to be," Coach Mushinskie continued. "It's a great choice. I lived in Idaho for a year and it's a beautiful place. He said he loved it, and the fact that they came down a few times to southern California [was a key factor]. And his mom would be able to see him play - that was very important to him. So he's very excited, and I think it's going to be great for him.
"He just said he felt really comfortable up there, and he said it felt like the right fit, which is great. A lot of people don't realize that the University of Idaho has a great football program up there. They play very elite teams, and Todd realizes that, and I think he wanted to have the opportunity to play right away. I know with Todd's athletic ability he will get that chance if he works hard in the offseason. Which, I know Todd very well, and he's a very hard worker so I know he will prove himself very early on."
THE HIGHLIGHT VIDEOS FOR TODD ARE IMPRESSIVE BY ANY MEASURE, and they showcase his exceptional speed out of the backfield. But that is not the extent of his talents as an athlete – a player that brings so much versatility to the game that it will be hard to keep him off the field at Idaho.
"Todd played a little bit of defensive back for us, a little bit of slot for us when we went into the spread," coach Mushinskie said. "I'm not sure exactly what the plans for him are at Idaho. But he can play a multitude of positions. In addition, he is an excellent punt returner and kick returner, so not only are they getting an excellent runningback, they're getting a kid that can block well out of the backfield, and a kid that can catch well out of the backfield too.
His physical characteristics include a 44-inch vertical leap (a mark he hit at a Nike combine, putting him in the same elite company as LeBron James and Michael Jordan), a school record 10.98 in the 100 meter as a junior, and an official 4.54 at the same Nike camp (he recorded a 4.44 at the UnderArmor Combine).
Statistically, as a sophomore he gained 815 yards on 113 carries with six touchdowns. As a junior he rushed for 1,343 yards and 15 touchdowns. As a senior his individual performances were off the charts. In one game he gained 206 yards in a losing effort against Centennial, then the following week gained 222 yards in a win over Santiago, and the following week gained 182 yards against Corono (with three touchdowns), earning him Player of the Week honors.
That's over 600 yards in three games. And to put things in perspective, Centennial (the team he hung 206 on) went on to play in the California state championship game (a 15-13 loss) and finish with a 14-1 record.
"Our football team is new. Our program is new. It is only 11 years old. We moved into a new league a few years ago with Corona, Centennial, Norco - some of the big schools that play in the California state bowls, and that definitely hurt us a bit. Todd had the chance to maybe transfer to one of those big schools, and he didn't. He chose to stay at the high school he started with, which I was impressed with. Someone with that much character … it really means a lot.
"But unfortunately we don't have a kid that is 6-5, 285 on the line. So a lot of times when Todd touched the ball – I'd say a quarter of the time he touched the ball - he would get hit in the backfield. But he was still able to make a positive gain, and that was huge for us. He was by far the most impressive back that I've seen in a long time, and we have faced a lot of great backs. I think the University of Idaho, they got a great athlete in Todd. He is an unbelieveable football player, he's an unbelievable student of the game, and I'm really excited that he's going to a place like Idaho because they have some great coaches. Coach [Patrick] Libey did a great job of recruiting him – he's always calling and coming down here and checking in on Todd, and I think it's going to be a great fit."
SO WHAT DOES AN ATHLETE OF TODD'S CALIBER BRING to a football program at the next level, beyond the jaw-dropping speed and outstanding playmaking potential almost every time he touches the football?
"I think his big strength is he's not a big talker, he's not a big ‘rah rah' leadership guy. Todd is a big ‘lead by example' guy, not only with what he does on the field, but in the weight room, during practice – he's always giving it 110%. And kids see that, especially the younger kids ... they need that. Todd is extremely fast, and you'll see that. But, more importantly, he could afford to take plays off; he could afford to take practices off. And he doesn't. He gives it all he has, all the time, and that is why he was such a great runningback, and why he was so great in high school."
Keep in mind we are ONLY talking about runningbacks here. The league is loaded with FBS level talent across the board. But specific to tailbacks, three from the Big VIII alone are headed to FBS schools, and includes Tyler Ervin of Colton who is committed to San Jose State. Within the region, there is also Superiorr Reid of Arlington that is headed to Nevada. If you look at the Big VIII League overall, position-by-position, it is loaded with talent going to FBS teams around the country.
Including speedy cornerback Dion Bass of Centennial, younger brother of current Vandal runningback Ryan Bass, who has given a soft verbal to Idaho and is picking between the Vandals and the Cornhuskers.
"I know he was nominated for All-State this year," coach Mushinskie said of Handley. "I don't think he got All-State, but he is definitely an all state player. Unfortunately we just weren't as competitive on the offensive line versus the defensive lines we were playing. We averaged 5-10, 220 across the line, and everybody else is averaging 6-4, 280 across. And that's tough for a runningback to put up big numbers. If he was at Centennial, or Norco, or Santiago, [teams loaded with FBS talent across the lines this year] he would have done it."
Despite the disparity, Todd still ranked among the top in his League in all facets of the game.
"He's going to be a good fit for the U of I," coach Mushinskie said. "Idaho is a good school, and they play in a tough conference, and they play great teams. I know Todd is going to show what he's made of, which is great."