Mead's Nathan Mackey is the type of running back that causes nightmares for defenders, a slippery blur that is impossible for opponents to get a clear bead on.

Fairview's Mariano Kemp would just as soon run you over as run around you. A human wrecking ball that dishes out bruises as easy as he racks up yardage.

It doesn't matter where you put Broomfield's Tanner Garner on the field — he'll find a way to make an impact. Line him up in the backfield, out in the slot, spread him wide or have him return kicks. Just put the ball in his hands.

And it's pick your poison with Erie's Noah Roper, a frightening combination of size, speed and strength. Just a junior, Roper can run by you, around you or over you.

Mead’s Nathan Mackey.
Mead's Nathan Mackey. (Matthew Jonas / Staff Photographer)

Four different players with four different skill sets. To label them simply as running backs would be a disservice. They are playmakers, pure and simple.

In an era that is decidedly pass-heavy, this quartet is a new breed of back that will determine their team's fates in the upcoming year.

Mackey's innate ability to make plays with the ball in his hands was the driving force behind the Mead's unprecedented run to the Class 3A state semifinals in 2016.

Not just one of the most exciting playmakers in the area, but one of the state's best, Mackey's 1,781 rushing yards stand as the most among all returning players to open the 2017 campaign. As a junior last year, Mackey also had 432 receiving yards to amass a total of 2,213 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns.


The Mavericks don't lack talent up and down their roster, but the offense is at its best when Mackey has the ball. Expect him to touch the ball regularly and in a number of different situations as the Mavericks attempt a repeat playoff run this fall.

"We're all excited," Mackey said. "This offseason, our whole team committed to the process that we're all about, especially our defense. On offense, our offensive line is looking good again. For me, I'm not going into the season expecting 300-yard games every night but I'm locked in mentally and I'm just focused on being a leader because we have a lot of talented guys on the field this season."

Broomfield’s Tanner Garner.
Broomfield's Tanner Garner. (Matthew Jonas / Staff Photographer)

As good as he was in 2016, the talent Mackey (5-10, 185) brings to the table may be assigned an even greater value this season. It will potentially have to make up for the loss of talented quarterback Riley Glynn, who threw for 1,807 yards in 2016 and is now at Black Hills State, as well as all-conference offensive linemen Shane Miyake and Mark Angus.

More importantly than statistical achievements, and if healthy, he should have many, Mackey is one of several Mavericks leaders who are focused on ensuring complacency does not set in after last year's big season.

"Last season was awesome," Mackey said. "But we've kept getting better every season and that's going to be our goal again."

Another team in the area that is looking to repeat a deep playoff run after reaching the 4A state championship game in 2016, the Broomfield Eagles will likewise lean heavily on their own do-it-all playmaker in Garner.

Between rushing, receiving and kick returning, Garner amassed 1,651 all-purpose yards as a junior in 2016. With last year's rushing leader Jalon Torres (1,889 rushing yards) now graduated, as well as talented receivers Mason Keeler and Ryan Mazzola, the myriad ways Garner can impact a game will become even more important for the Eagles in 2017.

"Obviously, we'd like to get back to the championship game and back to (Sports Authority Field)," Garner said. "But there's a lot of work to be done before we can think about that. We pride ourselves on our defense and this year we should be pretty balanced on offense with Stevie (quarterback Steven Croell) coming back."

While Mackey and Garner are attacking opposing defenses from all over the field in 2017, a pair of other playmakers - Fairview's Kemp and Erie junior Roper - will be looking to make an impact on both sides of the ball after having the torch passed to them by older siblings.

Noah Roper of Erie High.
Noah Roper of Erie High. (Matthew Jonas / Staff Photographer)

Kemp, the younger brother of Carlo Kemp who was named the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year and now plays defensive end at the University of Michigan, racked up 875 total yards in Fairview's high-powered offense last season. Not only does he expect to top those figures this fall as a result of improving his open-field cuts, Mariano Kemp will attempt to assume his older brother's post as a premier Knights pass rusher after making six tackles for a loss in 2016.

"One of Carlo's friends from Michigan is Dymonte Thomas, and he's always giving me (grief) about where I need to be," Mariano Kemp said. "Having Carlo in my life has been such a blessing, and Dymonte keeps telling me that I need to get at least 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns. This is my first year playing D-end, so I really want to tear it up on both sides of the ball."

Soaking up advice from his older brother and players like Thomas, who is currently on the Denver Broncos' preseason roster as an undrafted rookie, Mariano Kemp hopes that achieving his lofty two-way goals will help him secure a Division-I scholarship.

A player with his own big-time goals, Roper shined while just scratching the surface of his potential as a sophomore at Erie last season. He rushed for 1,310 yards and nine touchdowns, and also played defensive back to the tune of 78 tackles and three interceptions. Roper accomplished both, however, while rushing and defending behind his since-graduated older brother Zach Roper, who opened running lanes for Noah Roper as the Tigers' starting fullback and led the team with 94 tackles at linebacker.

"It's going to be a little different because he always had that extra edge of, 'This is my little brother, watch out,'" Noah Roper said. "Last year was one of our first years making it into the playoffs in a while. We broke that ice and now we're looking to make a deep run. I think this year we have a lot of talented players and we should be able to even better."

Roper, who has put on 25 pounds since his sophomore season and has emerged as a team leader, said the Tigers practices are more intense, the tempo is faster and the overall intensity is higher after reaching the postseason in 2016.

Those four players on 2016 playoffs teams aren't the only playmakers returning to the area with high expectations. Silver Creek senior Andreik Knechtel, who had 1,330 rushing yards in 2016, Skyline junior Jeremy Hollingswoth, who ran for 900 yards for Niwot last season, and plenty of others are primed for big seasons.

Though it remains to be seen which of the area's top playmakers will shine the brightest by season's end, it certainly will be exciting to watch each of them do what they do best.

Brad Cochi: or