Player to Watch No. 5: Spann a difference between winning and losing in Aiken

  • Posted: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 11:33 p.m.
Staff file photo by Noah Feit
Aiken’s Nakeem Spann was the Hornets’ go-to player on offense last season and a player to watch in 2013.
Staff file photo by Noah Feit Aiken’s Nakeem Spann was the Hornets’ go-to player on offense last season and a player to watch in 2013.

Few football players in the area are as tantalizing as Aiken High School’s Nakeem Spann.

The rising senior was scintillating when he was on the field for the Hornets in 2012 and was named an All-Aiken Standard second-team running back. Spann was among the area’s top-10 ball carriers, gaining 674 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. His average of 7.8 yards per carry was second best among elite area rushers – trailing only Strom Thurmond’s Darius Hammond, the Aiken Standard Offensive Player of the Year.

Spann was the driving force behind the Hornets’ offense and played a critical role in their victories. The biggest problem for Spann was being healthy enough to play.

He suffered an assortment of injuries, most notably to his ankle. The ailments caused him to miss three games entirely – including the season-ending loss to crosstown rival South Aiken – and significant portions of several other contests.

“It was frustrating,” Spann said Tuesday. “To be sitting on the sideline and see the team struggling, and you can’t do anything about it. You want to be out there so bad.”

The good news for Spann and Aiken High football fans is that the Hornets’ top returning player is currently injury free. Spann has been given clearance from doctors to go full speed in the team’s offseason program, and he’s already participated in weight-lifting sessions as well as 7-on-7 passing camps. He should be a central figure when practice starts on Aug. 2.

“I feel pretty good,” Spann said. “I’ve been working to stretch my ankles, work the tendons and get stronger.”

Because Spann’s an elite player who’s trying to overcome a significant injury, he’s definitely a player to watch. The fact that he’s doing it entering his senior season, where he’ll play for a new head coach – the first new head coach at Aiken High in 19 years – makes Spann an easy selection as one of the Aiken Standard’s top 10 Players to Watch for the upcoming 2013 season.

“We’re going to find ways to get the ball in his hands,” said Brian Neal, who was recently hired as the Hornets’ head coach. “I’m real impressed. He’s got everything you want in a running back.”

Although he’s only been at Aiken High a short time, Neal said Spann has made an impact on his plans for the upcoming season. Prior to Aiken, Neal was the head coach at McCormick where he relied on a strong running game.

With Spann healthy, don’t expect to see Neal’s strategy change.

That’s because Spann has a uncommon mixture of speed to sprint past defenders and the power to run through would-be tacklers. Spann’s a star on the track team, and he displayed his breakaway speed last season, scoring five touchdowns that covered at least 11 yards, with three of them exceeding at least 20 yards.

He’s also a workout warrior and has impressed Neal with his efforts in the weight room. It’s there where Neal’s trying to get Spann prepared to be as healthy as possible this season.

“He shows no signs (of injury) now. But it’s a concern, how durable can he be? He’s trying to build himself up for the long haul,” said Neal, who added that Spann’s efforts this summer have made him stand out. “He’s a leader. He’s a big asset beyond his physical attributes. I look for big things.”

While he’s still getting to know his team, Neal’s trying a lot of players in a number of different positions to see what will work best. With Spann as a top option on offense, he could get the ball in a variety of positions. He’s primarily working as a slot running back as well as a fullback, but has also split out wide at times as a receiver. Spann’s athleticism helps him stand out on any team, but especially on an Aiken roster that’s in flux. To that end, he could log significant time on defense, where Neal said he’s played cornerback.

“He’s a cover corner and really good, so we’ll use him some. But the less we have to use him on defense, the better,” said Neal, who added that Spann will also likely see significant time on special teams. “We want to get the ball in his hands as much as possible. So he’s very much likely to be back there catching punts and returning kicks.”

For his part, Spann is willing to play any position for the Hornets’ greater good. He wouldn’t even rule out playing some option quarterback, which he also did last season.

“They’re moving me around everywhere; it’s a good mix. If they need me, I’ll do it. I’ll do anything to help the team,” said Spann, whose goals are mostly team-oriented but would like to hit one individual milestone. “I never got over a 1,000 yards rushing, so I want to try to get that. But my main goal is to make the playoffs and make a run.”

Given his track record, if Spann’s healthy he should eclipse 1,000 yards. If he does, there’s also a good chance the Hornets will be having a successful season. That would certainly delight all of the Aiken fans watching, but they won’t be the only ones keeping a keen eye on Spann. He’s a sought-after recruit and has already received an offer from Marshall. Spann said other major programs such as South Carolina, Clemson, Michigan, Nebraska, Wake Forest Mississippi State, Miami and Missouri have all contacted him about possibly playing for them at the college level.

“That would be a dream,” Spann said, but it’s not his only one. He has high expectations for the Hornets this season. “I think we’re going to be pretty good. We’re getting an identity, and we want to put Aiken back on the map.”

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.

Series glance

This story is the sixth in a series highlighting the top 10 Players to Watch in the Aiken area for the rapidly approaching high school football season. The list will be revealed in descending order on a daily basis, with the No. 1 player to watch to be revealed on Sunday.

• July 12 — No. 10 Reggie Preston, RS-M

• July 13 — No. 9 Jaylen Lawrence, SB

• July 14 — No. 8 RJ Tyler, W-S

• July 15 — No. 7 Taylor Hearn, W-E

• July 16 — No. 6 Rasool Clemmons, SA

• Today — No. 5 Nakeem Spann, AIK

• Thursday — No. 4

• Friday — No. 3

• Saturday — No. 2

• Sunday — No. 1

The order was determined by Aiken Standard sports editor Noah Feit, staff writers Jeremy Timmerman and Eric Russell, North Augusta Star news editor Scott Rodgers, Aiken Standard intern Kyle Dawson, as well as ASTV broadcasters Ed Girardeau and Ken Brace.

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