There's a moment during interviews, occasionally, when the person I'm asking questions to will give subtle hints that I've just asked a slightly absurd question. Some interview subject's hints aren't as subtle as others.
Early in the season I had one of those moments talking with Lycoming head coach Mike Clark about tailback Craig Needhammer. I wondered aloud, after putting up great numbers through three games as the Warriors featured tailback, if the undersized ball-carrier could hold up physically over a full season.
The question may not have even been finished being asked before Clark shot down my notion. There was no hesitation from the coaching staff to giving Needhammer the football 20 to 25 times a game.
Lycoming running back Craig Needhammer carries during Saturday’s game against FDU-Florham.
It was a work load he hadn't experienced in his first two years at Lycoming when he was splitting carries with incumbent starter Parker Showers. The 204 carries he's logged through nine games this year is already more than the 110 he had as a freshman in 2011, and the 155 he had last year.
But Needhammer is different than the running backs he's starting to take company with in the Lycoming record book. He not the thick 185 pounds all-time leading rusher Josh Kleinfelter was in his three years as a starter. He's not the 195 pounds Brian Thompson was when he became Lycoming's career rushing leader in the Warriors' national runner-up season of 1997.
Needhammer is listed at 5-foot-7, 178 pounds. But he plays so much bigger than the numbers on the roster. He plays the game like he is a 200-pound back. He's not afraid to run between the tackles. He's definitely got the speed to reach the corner on Lycoming's sweep and stretch plays.
He may not be able to push a pile forward, but he's not getting pushed backwards either. It's funny to call a 178-pound running back the complete package, but Needhammer just may be.
He's got vision to find running room. He's got the toughness to break through tackles. And he's got the speed burst to pull away from defenders in the open field.
"We've been really, really lucky here, since I've been here, to have some great backs," Clark said following last week's 55-12 win over FDU-Florham. "Coach Girardi left a kid named Kleinfelter who was really good. Then it was Parker Showers who was really good. Then we're right into Craig. We knew early on he'd be good."
It took only two weeks for the North Penn (Lansdale) graduate to make his presence known. In garbage time against Westminster in Week 2 of the 2011 season, Needhammer carried eight times for 91 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown. He showcased the great speed which has made him a big-play threat since the day he stepped on campus.
A week later, Needhammer had four carries at Widener, and he followed that with 14 against Albright. Showers was expected to be the feature back that season. But Lycoming had developed a dynamic one-two punch with the 200-pound Showers - a bruiser of a runner with a good burst through the line - and the all-around capabilities of Needhammer.
It wasn't necessarily a surprise Needhammer became such a quality runner. He's in the top five of most single-season and career rushing records at North Penn High School, a Quad-A school which plays a demanding schedule in District 1. He's the third-leading rusher in North Penn history, and even sixth in career receptions. And he's always had a nose for the end zone as the Knights' all-time leader in touchdowns (48) and points scored.
What was maybe a little surprising was how quickly Needhammer became such a vital part of the offense. He and Showers combined to help create one of the best running games in the MAC over the last two years.
But never in those two years has he carried the workload he's carried this year as a junior. He's third in the MAC averaging 113.6 rushing yards per game. In last week's win, he became Lycoming's first 1,000-yard rusher since Kleinfelter in 2010. He is just the seventh player to run for 1,000 yards in a season for the Warriors, and his is just the ninth 1,000-yard rushing season for a Lycoming player.
His six 100-yard games are the third-most in a single season in school history. With his seventh 100-yard game this weekend, he could potentially have the fifth-best rushing season in school history.
Not only has Needhammer been a durable running back, despite his diminutive size, for a single season, but he's starting to prove himself to be one of the best in Lycoming history. He's already sixth on the career rushing list with 2,329 yards, and another 1,000-yard season next year would put him within reach of Kleinfelter's career record (3,665).
His 25 rushing touchdowns are the fifth-most for a career. His 4.96 yards per carry is fifth-best for a career, and he's averaging 80.3 rushing yards per game - despite splitting carries for two years - which is fourth-best in school history.
Maybe most importantly, with 20 carries this weekend, which is less than his average number of carries per game, he'd have the fifth-most carries in a single season, and the sixth-most in a career. He's had nagging injuries, but never anything that could hinder his production. He's never missed a game in three years suiting up for the Warriors.
You want to talk about an ironman, Craig Needhammer is it. The numbers on the roster would tell you he's not likely to be that kind of player. The numbers on the stat sheet would tell you otherwise.
"If Craig Needhammer isn't first-team all-conference, I don't know who deserves to be," Clark said. "Kyle Schuberth (of Delaware Valley) may be better than Craig maybe. But he might start for everyone else, and he might even start at Delaware Valley.
"I don't know if he'll ever catch Josh, but he'll be up the food chain a little bit which says a lot about the kind of player he is."
Mitch Rupert covers Lycoming football for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mitch_Rupert.