FORSYTH -- The video begins, and No. 6 for Mary Persons comes in motion as the slot receiver.
He takes the handoff from his quarterback and sprints to the right.
The senior has a small window to cut upfield early, but he continues to stay on a lateral path.
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His right tackle is pushing a defender toward the sideline, either anticipating the cutback or being directed a little by the defensive end who wants to string the play out. The ballcarrier keeps going right, however, undeterred by the rapidly closing gap between the engaged tackle and a receiver who is blocking a defensive back.
The defender appears confident that he has the ballcarrier cornered, but in a flash, he’s proven wrong. The ballcarrier makes his cut on top of the right hash mark at the 20-yard line closest to the home field house at Dan Pitts Stadium. The cut happens so quick the defender can’t lunge or even touch the ballcarrier, despite being within a few feet of him. The defender just turns and looks at the backside of the runner, who is crossing the goal line less than 2.5 seconds later.
The ballcarrier is Akebren Ralls, a two-time all-state selection who has made an impact by making plays like this for Mary Persons during the past two seasons.
He’s one of the most versatile players in Middle Georgia, lining up at three different positions on offense at times -- four if you differentiate between the slot and outside receiver positions -- and anchoring the Bulldogs’ defense at safety. He’s also one of the best kick returners in the state.
“He’s a very important player for us because he can do so much,” Mary Persons head coach Brian Nelson said. “He’s got a knack for being around the ball. It’s not coaching; he’s got an ability to get to the ball, make plays and then do something special when he gets the ball in his hands.”
Looking for evidence of Ralls’ resourcefulness? Nelson cites punt returns and kick returns for touchdowns, blocked kicks in big games, fumble recoveries, scoop and scores and a crucial strip of a ballcarrier against Statesboro in the playoffs last year. Ralls has an innate ability to convert big plays when he grips a football.
“I just try to get the most yards I can get,” Ralls said very directly when asked about his mindset when he touches the ball.
Nelson got a peek into Ralls’ usefulness very early in his sophomore season -- his first on the varsity. Ralls finished the season with eight interceptions -- he returned two for touchdowns -- and two kick returns for touchdowns.
“We knew he could play because of what he did in JV but nothing like what he actually did,” Nelson said.
Ralls landed on his first all-state team and became a player other teams had to keep track of whenever he was in the game.
Nelson, who took over as the head coach before the 2012 season, worked with offensive coordinator Jeremy Rayburn to integrate Ralls into the offense more during his junior season. He lined up at running back and played some receiver, and he even played quarterback in a wildcat formation.
The results were predictable, given Ralls’ ability. He averaged 12 yards on just 29 offensive touches. He continued his dominance in other aspects of the game, returning two kicks for touchdowns and averaging 21.1 yards per punt/kick return. He also had eight pass breakups, six interceptions, two forced fumbles, two blocked kicks and three fumble recoveries -- he returned two of those for touchdowns. One of those forced fumbles/fumble recoveries came in the playoff game against Statesboro, when he took the ball away from a lineman and raced 35 yards for a touchdown to put away the Blue Devils and help the Bulldogs advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1998.
Ralls enters his senior season with the chance to become one of the most honored players in program history. He got off to a quick start in Friday’s win over Jackson, gaining nearly 20 yards per carry and scoring a touchdown on the ground.
Nelson likely will limit Ralls’ plays on offense, particularly early in the season when it’s still muggy outside. The coaching staff has to be careful Ralls doesn’t suffer from cramps due to his lack of body fat, Nelson said. Even with his game-breaking potential, Ralls’ biggest contribution still comes on the defensive side of the ball, where he can control the game at times with his ability to cover large portions of the field. His ball-hawking skills are well documented with 14 interceptions during the past two seasons, but he doesn’t shy away from contact as evidenced when he exploded into the chest of a Jackson receiver following a completed pass on Friday.
But despite the big-play potential and his sterling résumé -- he’s just one of two Middle Georgia GHSA players to make consecutive all-state teams along with Lamar County’s Qua Searcy -- schools from BCS conferences haven’t exactly flocked to Forsyth.
Ralls stands around 5-foot-8, and he probably weighs around 170 pounds. Nelson said he’s academically qualified. His scholarship offers thus far are mostly from FCS schools and Charlotte, which is making the transition into a FBS program.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Ralls said. “It gives me a little motivation to play harder.”
Nelson hopes another strong season will change the minds of college coaches. He has no doubt Ralls can play at the highest level.
“He’s a football player,” Nelson said. “He’s just the kind of guy who is going to make an impact wherever he is on the field. He’s the kind of guy that scares you as a defensive coach, because you never know when he’ll touch the ball. Someone is going to get a heck of a football player.”