Early this season, there was a tentativeness in Jamal Abdur-Rahman's usually smooth cuts and dashes. Coming off surgery to repair cartilage in his left knee, he couldn't let loose and push the pedal to the metal.
That all seemed to change in Week 3, when the La Salle standout, looking more like the 1,200-yard rusher he was in 2009, carried 22 times for a then-career-high 219 yards and two touchdowns, including a 65-yard jaunt, to propel the Explorers to a 14-7 nonleague victory over West Catholic at Widener University.
Against the Burrs, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior also saw significant time at cornerback when junior Ryan Otis aggravated a shoulder injury.
"I didn't practice too much those first two weeks," he said. "I wasn't used to the speed of the game. When we played West, I got my speed back. From then on, things came naturally."
Abdur-Rahman put behind him the surgery, performed by Ray Moyer, an orthopedic physician at Temple University Hospital, and an extended layoff that shortened his preparation time for the season.
And No. 22 finished his high school career with a flourish. For his impressive overall contribution, Abdur-Rahman is The Inquirer's Southeastern Pennsylvania football player of the year.
In helping the Explorers to a 13-2 record, their third straight Catholic League championship, and a return trip to the PIAA Class AAAA final in Hershey, he rushed 224 times for a single-season school record of 1,755 yards and 24 touchdowns.
The Villanova recruit was also highly productive as a receiver, netting 300 yards and three touchdowns on 24 catches, and kick returner. On defense, as a lockdown cover guy and sure tackler, he made four interceptions.
"He has that star quality that good teams usually need," said Drew Gordon, La Salle's fifth-year coach. "He can turn that good play into a great play."
North Allegheny coach Art Walker, whose Tigers pinned a 21-0 defeat on the Explorers in the state final, noticed the same.
"When he's in traffic, he'll put his shoulder down and get the tough yardage," Walker said. "He can turn what looks like is going to be a routine run into a big gain."
In three varsity seasons, Abdur-Rahman, who played youth ball for the Oak Lane Wildcats, totaled a school-record 3,962 rushing yards and 1,000-plus receiving yards, and scored 72 TDs, including three on returns and an interception this year against Easton.
While recovering from knee surgery, he could not show off his skills at the many football showcases and camps during the spring and summer. That kept the likes of Maryland, Rutgers, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Purdue from making a serious pitch for his services.
The 17-year-old's father, Amin, a three-sport performer at Germantown (Class of 1981), is a regular at games. "He's the first guy on the field, flashing a big smile, when we win," Gordon said.
At Villanova, Abdur-Rahman, planning to major in business, is expected to play running back. However, with his versatility, a switch to receiver or defensive back would not be a surprise.
"He's a very well-rounded football player," Walker said. "He earned our respect."