BY JESSE SMITHEY
Ability isn’t always enough on the field of play.
To reach the varsity football level and make a significant immediate impact as an underclassman, that player has to have some football smarts about him, as well.
Tommy Winton showed an early penchant for that at Catholic. So did Kalib Fortner at Central.
That I.Q., when coupled with their skill sets, made them no-brainer picks for the 2018 5Star Preps Newcomers of the Year — Winton for offense and Fortner for defense.
For those who saw Catholic in the preseason, they got to see that Fighting Irish coach Steve Matthews had no issue with inserting freshman Winton into the starting lineup right away.
And that decision paid off from the jump.
“Well, when we first started teaching them the offense, I was shocked at how quick he picked everything up. It was just so easy to him,” said Matthews. “The first hurdle, he got across.
“Once we started scrimmaging, I think we scrimmaged McCallie, and the first time he touched it, he went for about 60. You saw a different gear and incredible vision.”
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Winton didn’t disappoint once the games counted; rather, he looked as though he’d played two seasons’ worth of varsity football.
He wound up leading 5A state semifinalist Catholic in catches (46), receiving yards (879), receiving touchdowns (eight), longest reception (73 yards) and yards per catch (19.1). He also was second on the team in rushing yards with 466 (10.1 yards per carry) and added six touchdowns on 46 carries.
Receiving and rushing combined, Winton averaged 14.6 yards per touch.
Not too shabby for a freshman, eh?
“When they’re out there playing, you don’t always remember how young they are,” said Matthews. “But for him, with his football intelligence, to be able to pick things up as quickly as he did and his ability to make plays, he’s got an extremely bright future.
“He’s well ahead of probably anybody we’ve had at the skill position. That counts (Clemson’s) Amari Rodgers and (Tulane’s) Chase Kuerschen — all those guys we’ve had as freshmen. Hopefully he’ll continue to build on a great freshman year.”
Fortner, a linebacker for 5A state-champion Central, logged some playing time as a freshman in 2017 but he didn’t really arrive as a player and starter until this past fall.
As the 2018 season wore on, his name kept climbing the 5Star Preps area sacks leaders. By season’s end he had 15 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.
He peaked at the right time, recording nine sacks in the postseason — including three in the state championship win over Henry County.
He was named to the Tennessee Sports Writers Association’s All-State Team, and the 6-foot, 190-pound Fortner also ended up winning BlueCross Bowl MVP for the 5A title game.
Central allowed just 10 points per game in its five-game postseason run, and none of its 15 opponents scored more than 20 points against Central in 2018.
Fortner played a major part in that.
“We knew he had a knack for making plays. And, honestly, last year he had a chance to steal that position from Marcus Johnson,” said Central coach Bryson Rosser. “He’s part of the reason why Marcus Johnson played so well down the stretch last year, because he had a freshman (Fortner) breathing down his neck for that spot.
“But we saw some really good things in him, some tangibles. He always played scout team as hard as he plays regular defense for the varsity team. So we knew he had a motor. We knew he had a knack for making plays. And his football I.Q. — how he understands it, what he has to do, where he needs to be — you saw it this year. He’s calling the strengths every single time, even when people motioned and stuff like that. We were really impressed with him last year … we knew what he could bring to the table and what he could possibly do.”
Neither Winton nor Fortner feel they’re polished products, though. As highly recruitable prospects, they know steps must be taken to reach the FBS level.
“Definitely working hard in the weight room every day,” said Fortner, whoes twin brother Liam is a wide receiver on the team. “Getting my physique up, and just grinding with my brothers.”
For Winton, working on his physique is a must, as well. But also, working on his route running and his speed will be critical to reel in the big-time offers he’s targeting. Ohio became the first FBS school to offer Winton, doing so on Jan. 17.
He’s also in contact quite a bit with Rodgers, picking the Clemson star’s brain on ways he can get better — anything from work ethic advice to dietary tips.
“I want to gain weight. I want to be somewhere around 185-190, and I’m pushing 185 now,” Winton said. “I want to get faster in my 40 (yard dash), too. I ran a 4.71 last summer before the summer started for high school (practice). So I want to cut that down to 4.5, high 4.5s.
“And then consistency catching the ball.”
So the saying goes: better never stops.
It’s how newcomers become veterans.