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Simmons Says - Dowell lives up to the hype

Opposing defenses are going to get used to seeing Malaki Dowell's back this fall as he runs away (Painted Barn Media)

Sometimes the hype becomes too much. People talk so much, hand out so much praise and celebrate something so much, there’s just no way to measure up. The build-up becomes overwhelming and there’s an eventual letdown.

Over the last 18 months, I thought I was getting there with Maliki Dowell. I had heard about him over and over, but never saw him live. The clips were, admittedly, insane and the speed was evident, but could somebody really be that good? Frankly, I had to see it to believe it.

Well, I saw it Friday and I’m now a believer. Dowell put on a show for Sparta, rushing for 253 yards and three touchdowns as White County moved to 2-0 with a 22-21 victory over Warren County. Dowell now has 442 yards and seven TDs in two games, numbers that would be even greater had Sparta not called off the dogs last week in a 48-0 victory over Livingston Academy (or had his 83-yard TD run Friday against the Pioneers not got called back for penalty).

Every time people asked me throughout the week if the Pioneers could beat Sparta, I said it would probably boil down to how many big plays they allowed to Dowell. In my mind, he was a track star in football pads, a guy who excels in the open field when it turns into a foot race.

Dowell showed Friday he doesn’t mind grinding his way to big yards too. It’s not that Dowell didn’t have big runs (he had a 38-yard TD in the fourth quarter), but his ability to chip away 4-5 yards at a time seemed to wear the Pioneers down late. By the end, Dowell was shrugging off defenders, breaking through arm tackles and doing major damage.

“It’s one thing I’ve worked on the most,” said Dowell after the game about breaking tackles and gaining tough yards. “I gained weight over the offseason while getting faster and stronger. I want to get even stronger so I can break more tackles.”

By the end of the night, White County coach Mark Frasier decided to not even bother with the masquerade of a hand-off. The Warriors just started snapping it straight to Dowell, who had 33 carries (and one catch) on a busy night. He didn’t flinch under the workload – he got better and better.

Dowell’s highlight reel in the fourth quarter included two touchdown runs (including one with 26.5 seconds left that preceded Sparta’s two-point conversion to win) and a wicked stiff-arm in the backfield where he turned a negative play into a 14-yard gain. Dowell was completely wrapped up by a linebacker, but he freed one arm, shoved the defender to the ground and then scampered around the edge for a first down. It was truly a ‘WOW’ play – I was awestruck while comparing it to Derrick Henry on the radio.

Before the season, it would've been hard to imagine Dowell would ever be able to duplicate his 2,029 yards and 22 TDs in 2021, but right now he’s on pace to do much more. If he keeps tearing through defenses like he has the last two weeks and averaging 221 yards per game, he’ll blow past last year’s total. More so, he’s already at 7 TDs – keep scoring 3.5 times a game and he’ll get to 35 in 10 weeks (not counting playoff games, something the Warriors have to be thinking about with their stud running back leading the way).

Stats like that should make Dowell a household name throughout Tennessee, if he isn’t already. At this point, everybody should know Malaki Dowell – especially voters for Mr. Football this fall.

I got to watch one of the best high school football seasons from a single player in decades just two years ago when CJ Taylor took the state by storm. He was a powerhouse, capable of taking over games on both sides of the ball. It earned him a scholarship to Vanderbilt and the 6A Mr. Football award in 2020.

Dowell’s a special talent as well, one that may not flash as much on defense, but he more than makes up for it by being option A, B and C at times for the Warrior offense.

“It’s always good to have No. 6 in your back pocket. I keep telling our offensive coordinator that he has a really tough job – 6 right, 6 left, 6 right and 6 left,” joked coach Frasier about his star, who has made No. 6 jerseys extra popular in White County.

Funny enough though, when the game was on the line Friday, Dowell turned into a decoy. On the 2-point conversion that pushed White County to a thrilling one-point win in the Highway 70 border battle, Dowell knew his job was to sell the jet sweep so his QB Tripp Pinion could get an easier look at the endzone.

“I was a little nervous – I’m not going to lie – but how the game went, I figured everybody would come with me and the coaches did too. It made it an easy run in for Tripp,” said Dowell with a smile about playing decoy on the winning play.

When it comes down to it, Dowell doesn’t let his superstardom overshadow the mission of his Sparta team. He’s just out there trying to make the team better, winning over his coaching staff and so many in the community with his affable personality and unreal running skills.

“I say this all the time – we’ve coached Malaki since he’s little and we have the ultimate faith in him. We have faith in all these boys. He gets a lot of the glory and he’s a very, very good football player, but I think he’d be the first one to tell you that the offensive line does its part and everybody is doing their thing,” said coach Frasier.

The coach was right. When asked how it feels to be trusted with the bulk of the offense, Dowell said, “It feels good that they look at me as the leader of the team, but I couldn’t do it without the rest of the team. We all bought in, dug deep and were able to get the job done.”

Like any senior that is seeing their high school career tick away week-by-week, Dowell has goals he wants to reach before he turns in his jersey (which has to be in the running to be hung up and retired by the time he’s done). Those goals though are personal, it’s all about the team.

“Our main goal is the state championship, but that’s everybody’s goal. Really, it’s about getting better each week,” said Dowell after Friday’s win.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to develop a plan to keep improving as long as Dowell stays healthy and the White County offense keeps opening holes. Sticking with 6 right, 6 left on the rinse and repeat cycle is good. Maybe they’re just waiting until the playoff to add the secret weapon – 6 up the middle.

The starting direction doesn’t matter anyway – Dowell’s only true direction is a straight path to the endzone.

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