As the sun was going down following North Medford’s football practice at Bowerman Field, Eli Spence sent a booming punt from near midfield that went out of bounds inside the 5-yard line.
And instantly the outcry of “how many more spots are you going to take?” came flying at the versatile junior, who just laughed it all off.
While Spence won’t likely be the Black Tornado punter anytime soon, he’s exactly the type of athlete you wouldn’t put something like that past.
In reality, though, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound standout has more than enough on his plate as a rising force for North Medford.
Linebacker, defensive end, tight end, inside receiver, fullback … Spence is already a pretty active piece of the puzzle in his second varsity season.
“He does a lot of things for us,” said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell. “We’re trying to move him around and do some different things with him. We think he’s a special guy, but he’s still in the learning curve of getting to all that. But when he does have the ball in his hands, he does an awful lot of good things.”
Spence ranks fourth in the Southwest Conference with 268 yards and three touchdowns on 14 receptions and is a key contributor on defense. For Friday’s game against crosstown rival South Medford — as a means to boost North’s running game — he’s likely to see his most time in the backfield since his freshman year.
“It’s crazy but I like it,” Spence said of his evolving role with the Tornado. “It’s pretty fun doing different things. I love that the team likes to lean on me. For me it’s kind of like, ‘I’ve got your back, you’ve got my back and we’ll do it together.’”
That doesn’t mean that it all can’t get to be a little taxing, but the 17-year-old takes it all in stride knowing there’s a method to the madness.
“Sometimes it’s kind of tough having so many positions because I’ll miss a full day at wide receiver when they want me with the running backs,” he said. “Personally I don’t mind and I think it’s fun, but I think in the future I would love to be a wide receiver. But when my team needs me to be running back, I don’t mind at all. I’ll be there for them.”
For Mitchell and company, it’s a matter of finding the perfect combination to propel the Black Tornado forward.
“This isn’t that hard of a game to figure out,” said the coach. “We’ve got to get the ball in playmakers’ hands any way we can. We think he’s as good of an athlete as anybody around, we’ve just got to get him in the right thing and the right mix.”
What the Black Tornado doesn’t have to do is get Spence in the right mindset. He’s had a passion for football ever since he started playing in the backyard with older brothers Wyatt and Will.
With the example they set and no leniency given to their little brother — “They didn’t hold up at all with me,” Eli noted — Spence was capable of competing on a sixth-grade Pop Warner team when he was in fourth grade. He repeated at the level until finally his schoolmates caught up with him in his third turn at the sixth-grade grind.
“Everyone was like, ‘Is this kid getting held back or what?’” Spence said with a laugh. “It was cool. I got to meet a lot of new guys every year and then finally I got to be with my friends that I was with at school and it was just like, ‘This is the football I like. Before it was hard but this is fun.’”
And Spence continues to have fun each time he’s out on the football field.
“Without a doubt I’m having a blast out here every single day,” he said. “Even when it’s practice and we’re running sprints, I’m out here with my guys and we’re just going to give it all we’ve got. I think every single one of us just loves that.”
That last part may be a stretch when you’re on your fourth or fifth gasser, but then again Spence is a little different than most. He has an adventurous spirit that includes trying to get friends to go out on a hike with him during the heaviest snowstorms, and a nonstop motor on the field that brings a steady energy to all around him.
“I think I get that from the backyard football with just my brothers always saying, ‘Eli go again, Eli go again, Eli go again,’” Spence said of his high-octane approach. “It just kind of made me that hyper kid that doesn’t want to stop, and I still feel like I’m that hyper kid out here on the field. I still have that next play, let’s go mentality.”
That drive is what Mitchell hopes Spence can bring to a North Medford offense that has struggled with its bread-and-butter approach of running the football but has made strides in recent weeks with the combination of Harley Robinson and Isaac Manuel. Through four weeks, the Black Tornado has made only 260 of its 1,049 yards of total offense on the ground.
“We haven’t had the inside punch and we need that,” said Mitchell, “so Eli’s going to play some fullback more moving forward. I think that’s going to help us a little bit. He’s a talented wideout who has caught quite a few balls — and when he does he makes things happen — but I think he’s really going to help our running game.”
And by adding another role, Spence can only further prove to college recruiters that he’s a player to keep an eye on.
“I think when he really matures as a football player, everybody’s going to be interested in him,” added Mitchell. “He’s got size and speed and everything you want. It’s his showcase and a chance to prove what he can do this week, too, so it will be exciting to see what he can do with that.”
— Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry