Being an underestimated running back is nothing new to Craig Needhammer.

"I've always gotten that, 'You're too small to do this, you're not big enough to do that' kind of stuff," the North Penn senior said. "I'm used to it. If there's a positive side to it, it's that it put a chip on my shoulder, made me work harder to prove people wrong."

Needhammer, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound tailback for the Knights, has been quieting the critics since his days playing youth football for the Cannoneers at Fifth Street Park in Lansdale.

For North Penn, preparing to face La Salle in a PIAA Class AAAA semifinal Saturday at Plymouth Whitemarsh, Needhammer has rushed for 1,361 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Last year, his first as a starter, he totaled 1,500 yards and 26 scores.

"I played a lot of sports while growing up," said Needhammer, 17. "I played baseball, basketball, lacrosse, and wrestled. My size never really held me back from doing anything."

In last Friday's quarterfinal against Neshaminy, Needhammer escaped for a 54-yard TD in the first quarter of a 42-6 romp. His night ended early, after 105 yards on just four carries, when he suffered a right ankle injury.

"One of Neshaminy's players came from behind and tackled me," he said. "My ankle got rolled up underneath me, and the player landed on me.

"After that, I was trying to run on the sideline, but I had a pretty good limp going on. We were ahead, 21-0, at the time, so we didn't want to push it. Had it been close or had we been trailing, I probably would have been able to go back in."

Needhammer, clocked at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash, did not practice Monday or Tuesday. "We just want to make sure the ankle is 100 percent before I go back in there," he said. "But I'll be ready Saturday. I'm going to play."

On Sept. 3, North Penn lost to La Salle, 27-14, at Crawford Stadium. Needhammer carried 17 times for 106 yards. The Explorers, down by 14-6 at halftime, rallied in the third quarter with three scores, two by air, in a span of 9 minutes, 33 seconds.

In the first two games, Needhammer doubled as an outside linebacker, usually in passing situations. With Knights coach Dick Beck trying to shore up a shaky secondary, he was moved to free safety in Week 3.

"It wasn't that big of a deal to make the switch," Needhammer said. "I always kind of wanted to play safety. With my size, the position fits me better."

North Penn's explosive offensive backfield also includes fullback Dom Taggart, slotback Brandon Mercer, and H-back Ryan Hessenius.

"Dom is the power guy, Brandon is the speedster, and Ryan is a great blocker," said Needhammer, who competes in the sprints and 300 hurdles in track and field.

Needhammer recently visited Bucknell. Before the season, he also heard from the likes of Lehigh and Lafayette. Playing at the Division II or III level is also a possibility.

"It's really out of my control at this point," he said. "Hopefully, everything will work out for me. My focus now is on the team, and doing the best I can to help us advance."

Dual-threat QB. In preparing for Friday night's Class AAA semifinal against Allentown Central Catholic, Archbishop Wood coach Steve Devlin and defensive coordinator Mike Carey are busy thinking up ways to slow down quarterback Brendon Nosovitch.

Nosovitch, a 6-3, 190-pound junior, has hit on 154 of 263 throws (59 percent) for 2,457 yards and 37 TDs, with 10 interceptions. He also has rushed 170 times for 1,417 yards (8.3 yards average) and 20 scores.

Load the box. West Catholic, trying to reach the Class AA final for the second time in three seasons, will square off with run-oriented Lewisburg in a Saturday semifinal at HersheyPark Stadium.

The undefeated Green Dragons, of District 4, have two 1,000-yard rushers in Merle Moscarello (178 carries for 1,423 yards, 9 TDs) and Nate Brown (181 for 1,314, 26).

Contact staff writer Rick O'Brien at 610-313-8019 or robrien@phillynews.com.