Something special: Warriors’ Cornejo in elite company after winning ASWA 4A Back of the Year

Cherokee County High School’s Jacob Cornejo, left, and Tae Diamond were honored Tuesday at the Alabama Sports Writers Association Football Player of the Year banquet at the Montgomery Renaissance. Cornejo was named the Class 4A Back of the Year. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director

MONTGOMERY – Cherokee County High School’s football history is an illustrious one, especially in the backfield.

Sam Fife (1974), Michael Perry (1991) and Coty Blanchard (2009) have all won backs of the year throughout the decades. On Tuesday, senior running back Jacob Cornejo joined that exclusive club.

Cornejo, who set a Cherokee County High School record for rushing with 3,003 yards and 36 touchdowns on 321 carries, was named the 2023 Class 4A Back of the Year by the Alabama Sports Writers Association during its Player of the Year banquet at the Montgomery Renaissance. He beat out last year’s 4A Back of the Year, Oneonta’s Fluff Bothwell, and Montgomery Catholic’s Caleb McCreary.

It was the second straight year Cornejo was a finalist for the honor. Last season he led the Warriors to a 13-2 record and their second straight state runner-up showing.

“After coming here last year and coming back with nothing, it just made me want to work harder,” Cornejo said. “It made me want to be smarter about my decisions. It made me want to drive my team. I’m just glad I got to experience this. I’m going to take this back home and celebrate with my team, celebrate with my linemen.”

Cherokee County head coach Jacob Kelley and Warrior junior lineman Tae Diamond, also a repeat 4A Lineman finalist, both said the 6-foot, 210-pound Cornejo is deserving of the honor.

Both called Cornejo “something special.”

“What a great way to go out,” Kelley said of Cornejo’s honor. “What Jacob has done the past two years, nobody’s more deserving. It puts the nail in the career that he’s had here.”

“I’m happy for him. I wanted him to win more than I did,” Diamond said. “It’s his senior year, so I wanted him to leave with something special. I’m really happy for him. That’s my brother. He deserves it. He should’ve won Mr. Football, but I’m happy for him.”

As Diamond alluded, the Mr. Football honor went to Saraland’s Ryan Williams for the second straight year. Williams is the first two-time Mr. Football winner. Williams helped lead the Spartans to a 14-1 record and a Class 6A runner-up finish this season. He finished with 71 catches for 1,320 yards and 19 touchdowns.

Williams is a University of Alabama commitment.

Speaking of commitments at the next level, Cornejo isn’t one. In fact, he’s received very few offers.

Kelley is hoping that Cornejo’s 4A Back of the Year honor will stir up more interest and change that.

“He’s available,” said Kelley, making a pitch to any college football coach who will listen. “There’s a lot of guys in his category, a lot of smaller classes and above , who didn’t walk away with back of the year, but they’ve got opportunities already. I would strongly urge everybody at the college level, if they’ve got a roster spot and they want a football player, the ultimate Warrior, you might want to take a look at the 4A Back of the Year. Jacob Cornejo is that.

“He’s going to be an asset to anybody. My number is not hard to find. Give me a call. I can tell you everything about all my guys, not just Jacob, but Jacob right now needs an opportunity. He’s a difference maker.”

Cornejo said he’s going to leave his future “up to God.”

“I’m ready for the next thing,” Cornejo said. “I’m ready to accomplish the next thing, my next goal, my next challenge. I’m ready for that. I don’t know where yet, but I know it will be somewhere.”

In the 4A Lineman category, Diamond was runner-up to Booker T. Washington’s Joseph Phillips. Phillips, a 6-3, 235-pound senior linebacker, posted 121 total tackles, including 31 for loss and eight sacks for the Golden Eagles (9-5).

Diamond (5-10, 225 pounds) delivered 130 total tackles including 33 for loss with 22 sacks and forced four fumbles for the Warriors.

Diamond said he’ll use the runner-up finish as motivation to make it to Montgomery again next year.

“I’ve just got to do more. I’ve got to bring more to the table,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll come up with it next year.”

Cornejo had a prediction for his teammate for next year.

“Tae is going to come back for a third time and he’s going to come back with hardware next year,” he said. “I believe that wholeheartedly.”

Like he did with Cornejo, Kelley echoed how special Diamond is on the football field.

“I know colleges like to look at measurables and things like that, but at the end of the day, Tae Diamond at defensive end, interior lineman, outside linebacker or running back, he can do it all,” Kelley said. “There were times in the playoffs where Jacob was completely gassed. Tae was the one who was the difference maker with third-down stops, big stops in games, all the wars we had. Those two guys were the ones who took the game in their hands. Both of them are difference makers.

“I would challenge anybody to take a look at their roster, and if they’ve got space for really good football players, we’ve got two at Cherokee County who are very, very special.”

Below is the complete list of Tuesday’s winners.

Ryan Williams, Saraland

(top 12 players regardless of school’s classification)
Ryan Williams, Saraland
Jaylen Mbakwe, Clay-Chalkville
Cam Coleman, Central-Phenix City
Alvin Henderson, Elba
Ronnie Royal, Gulf Shores
Jacob Cornejo, Cherokee County
KJ Lacey, Saraland
DJ Barber, Clay-Chalkville
KJ Jackson, St. James
Andrew Alford, Central-Phenix City
Malik Blocton, Pike Road
Caleb McCreary, Catholic-Montgomery

7A: Cam Coleman, Central-Phenix City
6A: Ryan Williams, Saraland
5A: Ronnie Royal, Gulf Shores
4A: Jacob Cornejo, Cherokee County
3A: KJ Jackson, St. James
2A: Preston Lancaster, Tuscaloosa Academy
1A: Alvin Henderson, Elba
AISA: Clayton Hussey, Lowndes Academy
7A: Bradley Shaw, Hoover
6A: DJ Barber, Clay-Chalkville
5A: QB Reese, Ramsay
4A: Joseph Phillips, BTW-Tuskegee
3A: Kentonio Kelly Jr., Mobile Christian
2A: Tucker Wilks, Fyffe
1A: Tim Parnell, Leroy
AISA: Jay Lindsey, Patrician

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