Highlands football coach Sam Albert couldn't remember the last time the Golden Rams had a running back reach the 1,000-yard plateau ... until two weeks ago.
"I've been here 10 years and we had never had a 1,000-yard running back," Albert said. "We did have a quarterback, Jeff Sinclair, rush for 1,000 and throw for 1,000, but not a running back."
Elijah Jackson, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound junior tailback, reached the feat in the Golden Rams' Greater Allegheny Conference victory against Greensburg Salem on Oct. 11.
"Elijah gained 137 yards on 14 carries in the first half," said Albert, referring to the Golden Rams 59-7 domination of the Golden Lions. "We took him out with three minutes left in the half and sat him the rest of the game.
"We did the same thing in our [57-7] win against Derry in Week 6. I could have left Elijah in there to pad his season total, but it's more important to have him healthy for the WPIAL playoffs. And it wouldn't have been fair to Derry and Greensburg Salem to leave him in there."
In fact, Albert decided to take advantage of a late-season non-conference home this past Friday against Ringgold, a member of the Big Nine Conference. He rested several starters in that game -- a 45-20 loss -- because it had no bearing on the GAC race.
Highlands had already clinched a WPIAL Class AAA playoff berth with the victory against Greensburg Salem. The Rams are in a three-way battle for first place in the Greater Allegheny Conference. They have a 6-1 conference record, the same as Mars Area and Franklin Regional.
"Elijah has played a big part in our success," Albert said. "So we want to keep him healthy for the playoffs."
The three teams will likely tie for the conference title. Highlands closes its regular-season schedule with a game at Knoch Friday. Franklin Regional has a game remaining against Derry Area, while Mars caps its season with a game against Hampton.
"It's a little disappointing to come out of the game at halftime, but I understand what coach wants to do," said Jackson, who rushed for 756 yards and nine touchdowns last year as a sophomore. "It's more important to be ready for the playoffs."
In seven games, Jackson has rushed for 1,082 yards and 10 touchdowns on 136 carries, an average of almost 8.0 yards per carry. He also has 141 yards and two touchdowns on four receptions.
"At the end of last season, I told Elijah that he could become even more effective if he started a weight-lifting program," Albert said. "He started lifting weights right after the season and put on 20 to 25 pounds of muscle over the summer."
The added weight has not slowed him down.
"I can feel the difference," Jackson said. "I'm much stronger, but it hasn't slowed me down."
Jackson is also a threat on special teams. He's returned five kickoffs for 162 yards and a touchdown and five punts for 111 yards.
"Elijah has the uncanny ability to make defenders miss," Albert said. "And he's also an excellent cornerback. He's got good closing speed and tackles well. He's the full package."
On defense, Jackson has 18 tackles and leads the Golden Rams with three interceptions.
"I enjoy running the ball, but I also like being involved with our defense," Jackson said.
Albert feels Jackson could play for an NCAA Division I school at either position.
"I'm just not sure if his size will hurt him," Albert said.
Jackson has already received interest from some Division I schools.
"Purdue, Pitt and Missouri are three schools that have shown an interest," Jackson said. "I enjoy playing defense, but I want to be a running back in college."
Jackson is joined on the Highlands squad by his brother Jeremy, a junior wide receiver/linebacker.
"We are both juniors, but I'm a year older," Elijah Jackson said. "I was held back in third grade due to a speech problem."
Jackson and his teammates have dedicated the 2013 season to former teammate Ryan Richards, a three-year starter at wide receiver and linebacker who was killed in a traffic accident in July.
"I push myself for Ryan Richards," Jackson said. "It was a big shock for everybody on the team to lose him. He's my motivation to get to Heinz Field."
Jackson is actually a four-sport athlete. He's a shooting guard on the basketball team, and has played baseball and run track.
"I played baseball last year and ran track the year before," Jackson said. "I would like to do both [in the spring]. It would be a real challenge to do both."