Coach Jason Karnes asked for someone who could gain two yards.
On a bad ankle, Jackson Yates instead got 50.
That play helps explain why Yates earned the 26th Southern Illinoisan Football Player of the Year, becoming the fourth Herrin player to win the honor. He’s the first since running backs Chase Merrill and Brent Milner shared it in 2014.
Yates rushed for 1,555 yards and 21 touchdowns on 176 attempts, a gaudy 8.8 yards per carry average. What’s more, he also played nearly every snap defensively as a linebacker, finishing with 74 tackles, five for a loss, an interception and a fumble recovery.
But it was Yates’ last play of the regular season that he, Karnes and a lot of Tiger fans will remember for a while. In danger of blowing a 24-0 halftime lead against Breese Central, Herrin led just 27-24 and was facing 4th-and-two late in the fourth quarter.
Karnes called timeout and made his request. Yates rose from the bench and told him he could get two yards.
“I wanted to try for two yards,” Yates said. “Let me go in and get two yards. I went to the huddle and said, ‘Let me get two yards and I’m out.’”
Karnes called a quick pitch to the right sideline for Yates. Two yards turned into 50, thanks to superb blocking and Yates’ competitive instincts – and speed – kicking in. The first down became a touchdown that sealed a 34-24 win, Karnes’ 100th in 13 years at Herrin.
“I should have just run out of bounds,” Yates said, chuckling. “Speed took over, but I regretted it when I got to the end zone.”
Yates left the locker room that night with his ankle wrapped up, and was at something approaching 50 percent the following week for the Tigers’ 48-7 loss in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs at Pontiac.
But that game doesn’t take away from his considerable body of work. Yates finished with the fourth-most yards for a single season in Herrin history. His 329 yards in an Aug. 31 win over Carterville busted a single-game school record.
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Only Jase Gosha, Gavyn Gosha and Chase Merrill have rushed for more yards in a season in program history than Yates. That Yates did it in his only season as a starter is testament to his patience and toughness.
“He put a lot of time and effort into the offseason,” Karnes said. “He had to wait his turn last year and when he had his number called, he produced. He knew he would be the main guy this year, and he was the fastest, toughest kid on the football field.
“He’s a great role model for the younger kids. He led by example on and off the field. Kids looked up to him, and he made his teammates better and tougher. I was very honored to get to coach him.”
Yates nearly cracked 1,000 yards in 2017 while backing up Jase Gosha, saving his best games for the end of the season. Yates rushed for 172 yards on just nine carries in a second round playoff win over Tolono Unity, including a 77-yard touchdown that wrapped up a 33-18 victory.
It was during that stretch that Yates came to an epiphany of sorts.
“That I could be really good at it,” he said. “I just trusted the process during the four years and it held up for me. I can’t say it was all my work, because the other guys kept me motivated during the offseason workouts.”
Were Yates 6-1 and 200 pounds instead of 5-11 and 175, he might be fending off a lot of college suitors. Instead, his relative lack of size appears to be working against him. He doesn’t have a ton of offers just yet.
But the guy who was patient enough to wait for his chance isn’t about to give up on his hope of playing college football just yet.
“Sometimes, it seems far-fetched to get there, but if I go to a few camps in the summer … I can still achieve those goals. I’m open to anything,” Yates said.
And as this year shows, give Yates a chance and you will probably get rewarded.