Clay Stearns (48) isn’t likely to win a 100-yard dash or jump out of the gym, but his abilities have earned him the nickname, “Big Skill.” Photo by Sarah Finnegan.

An important piece

If football was a game of chess, Clay Stearns would be Mountain Brook’s most impactful piece: the queen.

He can move in any direction. He can line up anywhere. He can do everything.

Stearns is the H-back for the Mountain Brook High School football team. He can line up in the backfield, on the line of scrimmage or on the outside. He can block with physicality, catch passes and run with the ball in his hands.

“It’s not jack-of-all-trades at that position, you’ve got to master all the different skills of the sport,” said Mountain Brook head coach Chris Yeager.

Players like Stearns are no longer the norm in the game of football. The H-back position requires players to do many of the things that fullbacks and tight ends did in more conventional offenses, before the emergence of the spread offense that is so prevalent in today’s game.

Yeager says finding players like Stearns is “the hardest thing to fi nd in football right now.” Refi ned motor skills and physicality normally fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, according to Yeager, but Stearns possesses both.

“You usually don’t find them in the same person,” Yeager said. “You do in Clay. A [big] guy that’s comfortable out in space and guys that can run.”

Stearns is not going to win a 100-yard dash or jump out of the gym, but his abilities have earned him the nickname, “Big Skill.” He has learned to get the most out of his natural talent and supplement it with pure technique.

“When you’re not as fast your average person, everything has to be perfect up to that point,” Stearns said. “The details that the coaches tell us to run our routes to get open, it’s got to be perfect. If it’s not, you’re not going to have a chance.”

Add in his desire to win, and Stearns is every coach’s dream.

“Out of all the guys I’ve ever coached, Clay Stearns is probably one of the fi ercest competitors I’ve ever coached,” Yeager said.

As far as where he lines up, Stearns said that there is no predominant spot for him. Before each snap, a real-life “Where’s Waldo?” scenario unfolds. Stearns could be a wide receiver lined up near the boundary. He could be flanking the right or left tackle on the line of scrimmage with his hand in the ground. He could be beside the quarterback in the backfi eld, on the opposite hip of the running back.

Stearns’ dad, Shane, is the Mountain Brook offensive coordinator, and gets his son’s seal of approval, along with the rest of the coaching staff.

“Our coaches do a wonderful job splitting everything up,” Stearns said. “You never know what’s coming at you.”

“Out of all the guys I’ve ever coached, Clay Stearns is probably one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever coached.”

Stearns’ favorite aspect of his game is clearing a path for his running back, but while he is running passing routes, defensive backs and linebackers bring unique challenges when they cover him.

He uses his size to shield off defensive backs, who are usually smaller and quicker than Stearns. Linebackers are typically more similar in body type and skills, so Stearns relies on his technique to beat them.

The ability to absorb a great deal of information and apply it is one of Stearns’ greatest strengths. He has to know everything about the Spartan offense, not just his assignment on any given play.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” he said. “The offense, they depend on you. Without a tight end, it’s hard to run your offense, especially the way we run ours.”

Another responsibility that Stearns holds to a high level of importance is his role as a team leader. His standing as a senior is not taken lightly.

“Ever since I was knee-high, I can remember being around seniors,” Stearns said. “Now to finally be one, it’s a good feeling. I think it’s 110 percent leadership. Everybody’s watching you, everybody’s following you, looking for you to direct them. I just think it’s a big thing.”

Stearns called the 2016 football season the most fun season of football he has experienced. The Spartans rebounded from a pair of three-win seasons to an 8-3 record and a playoff appearance. But it’s not the wins that Stearns will remember. The seniors that guided that team played a big part in steering the ship.

“Our senior class was unbelievable in the leadership that they showed us,” Stearns said. “It was fun, not because we won a bunch of games, but because of the relationships we’ve built. ”

Stearns is also an all-state baseball catcher, and plans to pursue either football or baseball as a college sport. He is unsure as to which he’ll choose, but he’s not happy about having to give one up.

Yeager thinks Stearns can play either sport, but feels his ability as a football player is certainly not recognized as much as it should be.

“I think Clay’s got talent and ability, but his biggest thing is his intangibles. I believes he’s going to have opportunities, but he’s not as appreciated as much as he should be appreciated.”

But at Mountain Brook, “Big Skill” is a valuable piece, on the chess board and the football field.