HomeFootballHow Daniel Thomas broke a 54-year-old KHSAA rushing record, became Mr. Football...

How Daniel Thomas broke a 54-year-old KHSAA rushing record, became Mr. Football candidate


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PINEVILLE — Five decades of roaming sidelines has caught up with Dudley Hilton, and the 75-year-old needs a knee replacement.

Problem is, the Bell County High School football coach has a record-setting running back who won’t let the season end, making it difficult to schedule surgery.

“Finally I said, ‘Let’s do it after the state finals. We might be in Lexington playing,’” Hilton said before the title game. “We kept saying, ‘What if this darn battery doesn’t run out on this boy?’”

Daniel Thomas just kept on running and was as reliable in these parts as the hardware that holds up “Chained Rock,” the ominous boulder that hangs off Pine Mountain and has become a tourist attraction here in the southeast corner of Kentucky.

Thomas has set three single-season state records while leading Bell County (13-1) into the Class 3A state championship game against Christian Academy (13-1). Kickoff is set for noon Saturday at the University of Kentucky’s Kroger Field in Lexington.Thomas enters the final with 3,682 rushing yards, breaking the 54-year-old state record of 3,361 yards set by Bath County’s Frank Jones in 1969. Jones did it in 11 games, averaging a still-state-record 305.5 yards per game. Thomas is averaging 263 yards over his 14 contests this season.

Thomas also has set records for rushing touchdowns (53) in a season and points (367) in a season. Boone County’s Shaun Alexander, who went on star at Alabama and in the NFL, set the previous record for rushing touchdowns (50) in 1994.

At 5-foot-9 and (maybe) 175 pounds, Thomas may not have the pro future Alexander ended up having. But Thomas may well join Alexander as a Kentucky Mr. Football winner.

“It’s an absolute honor to even be mentioned,” Thomas said Monday before the Bobcats started preparations for Saturday’s state final. “As a kid, that’s something I never really expected. If I win it, that’s absolutely awesome. But I’m blessed to even be talked about in that sentence.”

Making a case for Mr. Football honors

Mr. Football voters will have a hard time overlooking Thomas’ numbers.

His 367 points include 53 rushing touchdowns, one fumble return for a touchdown, three extra-point kicks and 20 2-point conversions. He’s averaging 10.19 yards per carry. And while compiling nationwide statistics can be an inexact process, MaxPreps.com lists Thomas as the nation’s leading rusher.

He’s also an excellent linebacker, ranking third on the team in tackles with 89 (72 solo).

“That boy, everything he does out there on that field he does at full speed,” Hilton said. “We practice for two hours, and he’s still running at full speed at the end of practice. He’s in condition to do that.”

Thomas led the state in rushing as a junior with 2,228 yards and earned honorable-mention All-State honors from The Courier Journal. A high ankle sprain during the offseason had Thomas wondering if he would be as productive this year, but he’s prospered while averaging 25 carries per game.

He set season highs for carries (41) and yards (371) in the Bobcats’ only loss — 40-38 to Rockcastle County on Sept. 29. He also carried 41 times for 236 yards and four touchdowns in last Friday’s 30-28 victory over Hart County in the 3A semifinals.

Bell County’s final stats: 49 rushes, zero passes.

Bobcats sophomore quarterback Blake Burnett didn’t mind.

“It really spoils you knowing he can get you yards whenever you need it,” said Burnett, who carried seven times for 58 yards. “He’s relentless. He doesn’t give up on any play, just runs as hard as he can. He’s a physical runner. … He just keeps going, seems like he never gets tired.”

Hart County coach Chad Griffin was impressed.

“Is he the most athletic person we’ve faced? No,” Griffin said. “He’s just a hard-nosed kid. I’d like to have him on our team. He gives 1,000% every time. He never takes a play off.

“He’s not a kid that wants to run sideline to sideline. … That little jump cut is what he’s the best at, so he’s trying to get north and south as fast as he can. When he’s in open space, you’re not tackling him.”

Griffin added Thomas will get his Mr. Football vote.

“The deciding factor for me is looking at what he does for Bell County,” Griffin said. “He’s the reason they’re in the state championship. If you took him off that team, I don’t believe they’re there.”

Embracing the underdog role

You might expect — given the numbers — Thomas would be a high-level recruit, but you’d be wrong.

He has two offers from NCAA Division II schools — Kentucky Wesleyan and Ohio’s Notre Dame College — and also is receiving interest from Eastern Kentucky.

Christian Academy coach Hunter Cantwell compared Thomas with Easton Messer, the 2022 CAL graduate who’s now a redshirt freshman at Western Kentucky.

“A really high motor and reminds us a lot of Easton,” Cantwell said. “Around here, we think that’s pretty high praise. I think what’s most impressive is he never comes off the field for them and never seems to lose that burst. He never seems to run out of juice.”

If the wear and tear of the season weighed on Thomas, he didn’t show it Monday.

Before practice, Thomas was lifting weights with his teammates, laughing and joking about the Bobcats’ underdog status against No. 1-ranked Christian Academy.

“They’ve got three three-stars,” Thomas said of CAL’s recruits. “We have no stars.”

Is that motivation for Thomas?

“I think we’re embracing it,” he said. “We have a lot of people doubting us and a lot of people writing us off and not giving us a chance. But if we come together and play hard, we can make this a good game and potentially win.”

As for Hilton, that knee replacement will come next week. As far as Saturday goes, the game plan will be simple.

“We feel like, ‘What the heck? You’ve got someone like Daniel, you might as well ride him,’” Hilton said. “Our kids have big hearts. We’ve got ol’ mountain hearts. I know we’ll show up.”

High school hoops: Our preview of Louisville teams, players and more as season tips off

Reach Jason Frakes at jfrakes@courier-journal.com and follow him on X @kyhighs.

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