JOHNSTON — For certain football players, the time comes that they become their team’s top option, the guy with the right combination of skill and experience to draw the focus of teammates and opponents alike.

For Strom Thurmond junior running back Chad Gilchrist, that time has come, and it’s enough to earn him the No. 5 spot in The Standard 10.

“He’s a specimen; he really is,” Midland Valley head coach Rick Knight said of Gilchrist. “He could present a problem for everybody.”

Knight noted the combination of size and speed that Gilchrist possesses. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Gilchrist is capable of going head-on with defenders or just pulling away. During his sophomore year, Gilchrist ran for more than 1,100 yards with 11 touchdowns, an impressive number considering quarterback Jauveer Hammond accounted for 1,300 yards on the ground himself.

Rebel first-year head coach, Antwaun Hillary, said that Gilchrist’s value as a running back goes beyond his running ability, though.

“Chad is just an all-around back,” Hillary said. “What you don’t see is his blocking ability.”

Hillary said that he and Gilchrist have talked about the back’s changing role on the team. After watching Darius Hammond, a sophomore at Charleston Southern, earn Shrine Bowl honors in 2012 as the tip of the spear for the Rebels and Jauveer Hammond, now at The Citadel, turn heads a year ago, Gilchrist has seen what it takes to lead a team with the type of expectations that Strom Thurmond squads face.

“It changes a lot because I finally realized I have to step up my game,” Gilchrist said of his approach. “I can’t just look up to Jauveer anymore and Kendall (Hill) and all them.”

Hill was the Rebels’ top receiver a year ago, and like both Hammonds, he has graduated. Add in that another top receiving weapon, Tyree Stidem, has moved to quarterback, and Gilchrist could be leaned on heavily – at least early on – as the only proven skill player Strom Thurmond has to start the 2014 campaign.

Hillary said he can rely on Gilchrist in that role, an asset for his first year at the program’s helm.

“One thing is you know he’s going to do the things he’s supposed to do,” Hillary said. “I know he’s only a junior, but he’s been a great leader.”

The coach added that Gilchrist has had good examples to follow in the Hammonds and other recent leaders for the Rebels.

“I think he was just kind of taught the right way to do things,” Hillary said. “I think he saw the importance of having a complete game.”

On the flip side, Gilchrist isn’t concerned about the transition to playing under Hillary. The former Rebel quarterback and offensive coordinator has replaced Lee Sawyer, who retired earlier this year after racking up a record of 107-24 in 10 years in Johnston. Gilchrist doesn’t expect the team will miss a beat, strategy-wise.

“It’s no different to me because he’s still like Coach Sawyer,” he said of Hillary. “I already had him with the running backs and everything.”

Gilchrist is already garnering attention from colleges like Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern. He’s even gone to a camp at the University of Georgia. Regardless of his future, though, Hillary said the junior embraces playing within the Rebels’ system, where he will share the load with Stidem and fellow running back Deion Chinn.

“One thing about Chad, he’s never cared about how many yards (he gets),” Hillary said, adding that Gilchrist places a higher importance on team victory than personal gain.

To get those wins and advance in the playoffs the way Rebel teams are known to do, Gilchrist and his teammates will need to overcome a new batch of region opponents and a new classification. After playing in Region 5-AAA for the past two years, Strom Thurmond’s returning to Class AA and Region 2-AA.

While the Rebels have faced region foes Batesburg-Leesville and Saluda as a regular non-region rival, Abbeville, Crescent and Ninety Six are all new to the schedule.

Gilchrist said moving down a class didn’t mean the Rebels could cruise.

“I know it’s not going to be a cakewalk,” Gilchrist said. “You’ve still got to play like it’s going to be the same teams.”

Before Strom Thurmond gets to region play, though, the Rebels will open the season on the road at Aiken. Gilchrist feels like the Rebels, despite some new faces, will be ready to face the Week Zero challenge on Aug. 22.

“I don’t expect us to be top-notch, but … I think we’re going to get it done,” he said.

Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.

This story is the sixth part in a series highlighting The Standard 10, the top 10 Players to Watch in the Aiken area for the rapidly approaching high school football season.

• July 21 — No. 10 DeAngilo Drayton, SB

• July 22 — No. 9 Dalton Swires, FC

• July 23 — No. 8 Tyree Stidem, ST

• July 24 — No. 7 Rashad Byrd, NA

• July 25 — No. 6 Malik Lee, SA

• Today — No. 5 Chad Gilchrist, ST

• Sunday — No. 4

• Monday — No. 3

• Tuesday — No. 2

• Wednesday — 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 and staff writer T.J. Lundeen, as well as ASTV broadcasters Ed Girardeau and Ken Brace.