The running man

After moving from safety to tailback for the final three games of the 2014 football season, Mitchell Burton knew he’d be carrying the load for Columbus North in 2015.

So Burton spent some of his summer days at Mill Race Park doing hill workouts. He also did speed agility drills with running backs coach Harvey Scruggs in the offseason and put on about 15 pounds through his work in the weight room.

All of that work paid off for Burton this fall. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound junior ran for 1,757 yards and a school record-tying 22 touchdowns in only 10 games to lead the Bull Dogs to their first winning season in four years. He is The Republic Football Offensive Player of the Year.

“I was pretty prepared for it,” Burton said. “I knew that I could do it since I did it last year. It came pretty easy sometimes, and sometimes, it was a little rough.”

Burton ran for more than 200 yards five times this season and ran for at least 100 in nine of the 10 games. The only game he didn’t reach the century mark was against one of the state’s top defenses in a loss to Bloomington South, just one week after he had strained his MCL and tweaked an ankle.

“I definitely need to get stronger, because I had a few injuries toward the end of the year,” Burton said.

The success was no surprise to North coach Tim Bless, who called Burton a “prototypical workhorse running back.”

“The latter part of his sophomore year, we figured out what a tool we had in Mitchell Burton, and we discovered throughout the offseason how we were going to use him this year,” Bless said. “He absolutely came through with all of our hopes. He’s arguably as tough a football player as I’ve coached, regardless of position.”

Burton showed a glimpse of the type of athlete he was when he won the sectional title in the long jump his freshman track season. As a sophomore, he finished 12th at state in the long jump with a leap of 21 feet, 11½ inches while also qualifying for the regional in the 200 meters.

This past spring, Burton was clocked in 10.98 seconds in the 100 and has been consistently around the 4.5 range in the 40.

“He has a great combination,” Bless said. “His success in track has crossed over to football with straight-line speed and stamina. Coach Scruggs in particular has enhanced his ability to be a complete running back with change of direction, jump-cuts, using weapons as a running back like stiff arms. He’s a very good blocker and pass receiver.”

Those traits have several college football programs, including Miami of Ohio, talking to Bless about Burton. Burton figures if he goes to a smaller school, he might stay at running back, but if he goes to a Division I program, he could move to safety or wide receiver.

“I’d like to go D-I in football and maybe track, too, if a school lets me do both of them,” Burton said.

Burton is now training for track season and for his senior year of football. The Bull Dogs dropped their final three games to state-ranked teams, including their sectional opener against eventual Class 6A state champion Center Grove, but a 6-1 start had the team in good spirits all season.

“I knew the team was enjoying it, and I could tell that everybody was having a lot more fun this year,” Burton said. “They wanted to get out there and play, and practice was more fun. It was nice to get those wins.”

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.