CHARLOTTESVILLE — Craig Rifner competes against him almost every day in practice. Opposing defenses don’t receive the same luxury.
A rare combination of power and speed, attempting to tackle this offensive weapon comes with a consequence. On most occasions, he will hit you first.
“One second you have him wrapped up … then, in the next second, he’s in the end zone,” Rifner said, a senior linebacker for the Royals.
Even if you know he’s coming, stopping Eastern Hancock senior running back Devin Denny is a tall task. Just ask any defense last season.
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In a breakout junior campaign, Denny plowed through opponents on a weekly basis. Watching tape of Eastern Hancock will reveal his unique skill set. But that doesn’t make it any easier to bring him down under the lights on Fridays.
“He’s not a big guy, but he can make you miss,” Rifner said, who returns as the team’s leading tackler. “He’s not afraid to hit you if needed.”
The 6-foot, 185-pound Denny avoided plenty of defenders last season. Although quiet in demeanor, Denny does anything but shy away from contact. He rushed for 1,321 yards and 13 touchdowns last season and also added 373 yards and six touchdown through the air.
As versatile as they come, Denny can power through a packed offensive line or embarrass a defender with a dazzling move on the outside.
Royals’ junior quarterback Jarett Lewis, who set a school record for passing last season, calls him the team’s “go-to” guy.
Even more impressive, Denny averaged 7.1 yards per carry in 2015. He rushed for more than 100 yards in eight of the Royals 11 games, as well, and averaged 120.1 yards per contest. His career night came against Shenandoah in October. He finished with 204 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
“What helps me the most is my ability to read the situation on the field and react,” Denny said, who broke for a 68-yard run in the win over the Raiders.
Eastern Hancock eventually lost to Indianapolis Howe in sectional play last season, though, ending its season at 10-1 after a perfect regular season and a No. 2 ranking in Class 2A.
Although it was his first season in an extended role for the Royals, Denny is no stranger to the football field.
Raised in a family full of athletes, Denny’s passion for the sport stems from his older brother. A successful player in his own right, Austin, a former lineman, played on Eastern Hancock’s state runner-up team in 2013. The Royals were 14-1 that season under head coach Pat Echeverria and lost to Tri-Central 20-10 in a heartbreaking state championship game.
Denny made the varsity roster as a freshman that year but played sparingly on special teams and late in contests.
It was a time to learn, though, and he learned from some of the best to ever wear a Royals’ uniform.
In his first two seasons, Denny took notes and was a student of the game. He watched every cut, step and burst of speed running backs Spencer Gilbert and Cooper Henderson took on the field.
Spencer Gilbert, who is now playing at Ball State, rushed for 2,916 yards and 39 touchdowns that season as a senior while Henderson, a junior, finished with 1,001 yards and 14 scores.
“I was able to pick up on things they did that made them so amazing,” Denny said. “I learned how to take hits from Spencer and took my cutting ability and moves from Cooper.”
As a sophomore, Denny logged time at tight end and totaled 190 receiving yards and two touchdowns. It also helped his physicality.
After the state loss in his first varsity season, Denny remembers the look of agony and defeat in his older brother’s eyes.
“It tore me apart,” Denny said of his emotions after the game, which still motive him to this day. “I never want to have that feeling again.”
In addition to Austin, Denny’s father, Phil, and uncle, Travis, were successful multi-sport athletes in high school at Greenfield-Central. Both wrestled and played football.
In addition, Travis’ daughter, Morganne Denny, is a senior for the Cougars and plays basketball and softball. She was named Daily Reporter Co-Softball Player of the Year last season and is committed to IPFW, a Division I program.
Her cousin isn’t bad on the diamond, either. Denny made the All-Hancock County team last season for the Royals’ baseball team and wreaked havoc in the leadoff spot. He hit .420 and led the team with 37 hits and nine doubles. He also stole seven bases.
“He is really determined and works very hard,” Morganne said of her cousin, who she played with in the front yard as a kid. “He still got playing time even when they (Eastern Hancock) were really good a few years ago.
“He has always been a tough kid. Even though he is really tough, he has always been nice and easy to talk to.”
On Friday, Morganne’s loyalty will be put to the test. Greenfield-Central travels to No. 8 Eastern Hancock for the first meeting between the schools located approximately 12 miles apart. She expects a huge crowd.
“It’s going to be really good competition between us,” Morganne said. “A ton of Greenfield people are going to be there.”
For Denny, who has recently received interest from Franklin College for football, this marks the beginning. He wants to get back to where it all started in 2013 — the state finals.
“These seniors and the whole team are my family, and I want to take them places and not let them down,” he said.
Devin Denny, Class 2A No. 8 Eastern Hancock
Position: Running back
2015 stats: 1,321 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, 373 receiving yards and six touchdowns
In depth: 120.1 yards per game, 7.1 yards per carry, eight 100-yard games
Other sports: Baseball (All-Hancock County)
Family: Father Phil Denny, mother Jennifer Denny, brother Austin Denny
Favorite athlete: T.Y. Hilton
Favorite food: Wings from Buffalo Wild Wings