It didn’t take Dennis Merritt very long to realize that he was faster than most everybody else he competed against in an athletic endeavor.
“It’s God’s gift that I can run,” he said. “When I played pee-wee football, I was an option quarterback, and every time I’d roll out, there would be open green.”
Merritt is now a running back, and a very good one at that. It’s a good bet that he’ll be seeing a lot more open green space this fall, using his breakaway speed to churn out yardage in big chunks, score touchdowns and lead Cascade to victories.
As a sophomore in 2012, Merritt was one of four running backs that Kodiaks coach Elia Ala’ilima-Daley deployed on a regular basis. He didn’t get a ton of carries as a result — only 72 on the season — but he still managed to rack up 923 yards (12.8 yards per carry) and 12 rushing touchdowns as the Kodiaks advanced to the 1A state tournament.
This year, though, there will be no doubt as to who will be Cascade’s top rushing threat. While Ala’ilima-Daley will still prefer to spread the ball around to several different playmakers, he’s absolutely certain that when the Kodiaks need to pick up crucial yards in a critical situation, he’ll be turning to Merritt.
“We’ll go to Dennis in crunch time,” Ala’ilima-Daley said. “He needs to be ready to step up.”
Oh, he will be. That’s not going to be an issue.
Merritt has embraced the challenges that will come from more carries and increased attention from opposing defenses.
“That’s what I’ve been waiting for these two years, to put my team on my back and do whatever I can,” Merritt said. “I know it’s not going to be easy, and I know it’s going to be a grind.
“I’d like to be first-team all-league in all of my positions and hopefully make big plays for my team so we can win and get into the playoffs and try to make it all the way to the (Tacoma) Dome.”
“I didn’t expect this to happen,” Merritt’s father, Dennis Sr., said, “but I thank God every day, honestly. He’s worked pretty hard at it. He did all of this himself as far as the drive and motivation to get to where he’s at. We just never expected this to blossom as beautiful as it has.”
‘You can’t teach speed’
Merritt’s speed has always been his main separator.
He excelled as a member of the Kodiaks’ track and field team last spring, taking 10th place in the 100-meter run at the 1A state meet. He owns the program’s 100- and 200-meter records for the freshman and sophomore levels.
“He could be at 10.5 or below (in the 100),” said Cascade track and field coach Rob Rosenau. “He’s got both track speed and football speed, which is unique. He’s got tremendous potential.”
During the summer, Merritt turned his focus back to football.
He went to work on becoming a more complete running back, perfecting his footwork, pass protections and pass-catching abilities (Ala’ilima-Daley said that Merritt will be used as a slot receiver this fall) and lifting weights “almost every day” to put some bulk on a frame that will be subjected to more wear and tear with more carries this fall.
“At camp, he went through some holes, and the Ellensburg coach told me, ‘Our middle linebacker never saw him,’ ” Ala’ilima-Daley said. “You can’t teach speed, and the CTL noticed that last year. He’s got track speed, but he doesn’t lose a step in pads.”
Merritt also attended the Official Player Watch combine in Seattle, where he competed against a multitude of players from around the state, mostly from bigger schools.
Merritt’s performance netted him combine’s Most Valuable Player honor.
“He demonstrated great athleticism and skill set during the camp portion of the day,” according to the combine’s website. “Coach (Ken) Cornist said Merritt has all the tools to be an elite running back in the state. The one noticeable characteristic trait is his competitive nature with a humble attitude. He should be a top recruit for the 2015 class.”
“I came in confident,” Merritt said. “I knew those guys went to bigger schools, but I came out there (with the mindset) that I have nothing to lose, and I might as well play better than those guys, and obviously I showed (that I could do) that.”
He’s ready to show more of what he can do this fall.