By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
CENTRE – Cherokee County head football coach Jacob Kelley has coached or played with a slew of running backs in his career. The only other running back Kelley can compare Warrior junior Jacob Cornejo to is former Cedartown High School and Cleveland Brown rusher Nick Chubb.
“He (Cornejo) got better as a physical specimen runner toward the end of the year,” Kelley said. “You look at his yards per carry. He was almost at 10 a carry. The only other back I’ve seen get better as the games go on is Nick Chubb at Cedartown.”
Cornejo certainly had a special 2022 football season. He set a school rushing record with 2,580 yards on 287 carries with 33 touchdowns for the Class 4A state runner-up Warriors (12-3), but what’s more impressive about those numbers is Cornejo compiled them in his first season at Cherokee County after transferring in from Sand Rock.
“It was a little different switching from 2A to 4A, but as soon as I started getting the hang of it, I got the hang of it pretty good,” Cornejo said.
That’s certainly an understatement.
It may have taken Cornejo a little time to get adjusted, but it didn’t take Kelley long to figure out what kind of talent Cornejo had. For him, it was just a matter of pushing Cornejo to his potential.
“Me not knowing Jacob as a player and never meeting him until he enrolled here, getting to experience him in the weight room, I kind of got an idea from the speed work stuff about how dynamic he could be,” Kelley said.
And Cornejo didn’t disappoint. He came in to work and got better every day.
“I’ve never experienced a weight room like I have with Coach Kelley,” Cornejo said. “He’s made me stronger. He’s made me faster. He’s made me so much better at what I could do. He’s really believed in me a lot. He’s put his faith in me and I don’t think I’ve let him down yet.”
Following his stellar 2022 season, Cornejo recently earned all-state status as a first-team athlete. He was also chosen as a finalist for Class 4A Back of the Year by the Alabama Sports Writers Association on Christmas Day.
It should come as no surprise that Cornejo recently claimed another honor: All-Cherokee County Offensive Player of Year. He joins Kelley (Coach of The Year) and teammate Tae Diamond (Defensive Player of the Year) as this year’s top all-county football award winners.
“It makes me feel good,” Cornejo said of the honors he’s receiving. “It gives me a lot of pride and confidence, but all of the achievements I’ve gotten and all of the records I’ve broken, I don’t take the credit for myself. My line helped me out with that. Jack (Amos) helped me out with that. Our coaches helped me out with that. I’m very grateful for all those guys.
“It was all about the team. Once we all started buying in together, we all started working harder and pushing each other at practice, which made us better, which made me better.”
Perhaps the defining moment for Cornejo and the Warriors’ season was when senior quarterback Cade Hopper was injured in the second half of a crucial region game against Etowah. The Warriors ran the football mostly from their heavy-set package, which alternated carries between Cornejo and Amos.
The duo proved to be a powerful 1-2 punch the remainder of the regular season and throughout the Warriors’ state playoff run.
“Me and Jack, we’re friends outside of football, and we just know each other. We know our chemistry together,” Cornejo said. “I feel like we all step it up when it comes down to it. Everybody just has that winning mentality on our team.”
That winning mentality trait served the Warriors well in 2022, and it’s something Cornejo hopes will lead to an even bigger year in 2023.
“Next year is going to be a whole different story,” Cornejo said. “I feel like if we keep working we might make another run back to it (state championship).”
In all, the Warriors had 18 players selected to the All-Cherokee County Team. Joining Cornejo, Diamond and Kelley from Cherokee County High School are Hopper, Amos, Malachi Horton, Haden Wheeler, Demarius Diamond, Alex Johnson, Jeb Crane, Ben Frampton, Will Frampton, Tristan Brown, Alex Loyd, Landon Ransum, Dalton Chestnut, Connor Wilson, Zach Gaylor and Yestin Mejia.
Warrior honorable mention players are Antonio Hernandez, Cooper Martin, Jaden Wilson and Caleb Harbour.
Spring Garden (10-2) had 10 selections in John Welsh, Braxton Haney, Reece Winstead, Chapel Pope, Connor Bates, Cam Welsh, Tanner Ruark, Jacob Dempsey, Jacob Welsh and Mathias Williams.
Sand Rock (4-6) and Gaylesville (3-6) both had seven selections. Chosen from Sand Rock is Brian Giles, Ace Ashley, Bradley Jackson, Jace Turner, Trace Haygood, Gatlin Cox and Hugh Moore. Honorable mention Wildcats are Lucas McDaniel, Everett DeBoard and Morgan Tucker.
Chosen from Gaylesville is Briley Mitchell, Seth Lee, Tanner Eads, David Glenn, Bailey Glassco, Keylon Higgins and Kyler Bradley. Honorable mention Trojans are Braden Sharp, Hunter Allmond, Eli Bryson, Collin Hendon and Karson Ray.
Cedar Bluff (4-7) had seven selections in Kade Browning, Dylan Kinard, Hunter Jenkins, Bucky Leek, Eli McFry, Austin Richardson and Hagen Stallings. Tiger honorable mention players are Aden Green, Jacob Chambers and Hunter Stallings.