BEECH GROVE -- Justin Brent wore the scars of a marked man -- grass-stained uniform, worn white-gloved hands, a few bruises, plenty of sweat.
The Speedway senior had just done what you'd expect the best player on the field to do -- lead his team to victory. The Sparkplugs (2-1) beat Beech Grove 37-19 Friday night and Brent was a do-it-all dominant force, rushing for 160 yards and a touchdown, returning a kickoff 60 yards for a TD, intercepting a pass.
It didn't come easy. Beech Grove (1-2) saw to that, but then, that's nothing new.
“When we play, everybody targets Justin,” Speedway coach Denny Pelley said. “That's OK. He understands that.”
So now Brent stood under the bright Beech Grove stadium lights, uniform gone, black t-shirt stretched tight across his chest like armor, embracing a role few could handle.
“I definitely look at it as a challenge,” he said. “I have a target on my back every game. My teammates help me out.”
Brent gets breaks during kickoffs, punts and field goals. Other than that, he bears the burden of Speedway's season hopes. He is not a one-man team (sometimes he's a decoy), but he is a difference maker every opposing coach game plans for.
“He knows his situation,” Pelley said. “He knows his role. That's the neat thing. I'm proud of him. A lot of people would use that and sulk. He doesn't care about stats. He cares about getting better.
“He plays every snap. His goal is to play every snap in a game. We're happy with that.”
Brent intimidates some, is a challenge for others. MaxPreps lists him as Indiana's preseason Mr. Football. He is 6-2, 195 pounds and committed to Notre Dame as a receiver.
The Irish got him early, just over a year ago, before he went from a three-star Midwest prospect to a near five-star national standout.
Brent created a big recruiting buzz over the summer with his impressive showing at the Rivals 100 Five-Star Challenge, and then at The Opening, a week-long camp held at the Nike facilities in Oregon. That enabled him to jump 100 spots in the national rankings.
Rivals.com, a national Internet recruiting service, rates him as the nation's No. 10 receiver and the No. 74 player overall. Another Internet recruiting service, 24/7 Sports.com, has him as the No. 63 player overall and the No. 7 receiver.
Recruiting analyst Barton Simmons of 24/7 said after The Opening that “Brent has a big frame and good ball skills, but he also showed an understanding of route running, depth and timing, and received strong praise from offensive coaches throughout the week.”
Brent hopes to graduate from high school in December, then enroll at Notre Dame for the second semester. The key -- completing two semesters of government and English by December. He said he's well on his way.
“I've already got the second semester government done -- I got an 87,” he said. “I'm getting a 92 in second semester English.
“My school is working with me very well. I have a prep period where I get to work on that. It hasn't been too bad. I've been able to get stuff done.”
When it comes to Brent's Speedway football role, Pelley is no fool. When you have the state's No. 1 ranked player, as Brent is, you use him. So Brent plays running back, receiver and safety. He returns kickoffs and punts -- when teams kick to him. The idea is to get him 25 to 30 touches a game.
So far, so good.
“At first it was very fatiguing,” Brent said. “The more you play, the more you understand what you have to do.
“My schedule this past week was hectic, but it paid off. I practice, then I run 40-yard wind sprints five to six times. At night I run a mile. Then I lift two times a day just to get my body right. I take that Thursday off to get ready for the game.
“The past few games I was winded. Tonight I felt really good.”
It showed. In Friday night's first half, Brent rushed seven times for 74 yards, including a 46-yard TD run. He also returned a kickoff – off a lateral pass – 60 yards for another touchdown. He had one diving interception, then dropped another that would have gone for a pick-6.
Still, for the first quarter, Beech Grove made him offensively irrelevant. The Hornets put nine to 10 players near the line of scrimmage, with a linebacker focused on him for every play. He had seven yards on three carries. Three passes went his way. None were completed. One turned into a backward lateral he scrambled to fall on.
It didn't figure to last.
It rarely does.
As a freshman, Bent caught 37 passes for 544 yards and nine touchdowns. In 2011, he caught 40 passes for 819 yards and 10 touchdowns. Last season, he had 54 catches for 992 yards and 13 TDs. He also rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown.
During last week's 35-0 loss to Indianapolis Scecina, Brent rushed for 73 carries on 12 carries despite facing a defense that assigned two players to him on every play, plus put nine defenders close to the line of scrimmage to provide maximum pressure, minimum opportunities.
Overall, Brent has rushed for 413 yards, and caught four passes for 29 yards. His receiving numbers are way down because Speedway quarterback Nick McCormick is new to the job after last year's starter, Austin Anglea, graduated, and the passing game has yet to find its rhythm. Thus, the reason Brent is playing running back for the first time since junior high.
“He's a selfless player,” Pelley said. “There are a lot of things that he can do we can't do. We can't throw it right. We're an improving 2A team. Our kids are getting better ...
“He's caught (32) TDs the last three years. His day will come. He's a leader defensively and offensively. He understands football. He's a nut on watching film. He's a nut on working out. He wants to get better.”
Added Brent: “I've got a good quarterback. He's getting better. Once we get a couple of pieces and we start throwing the ball, defenses won't be able to (load up to stop the run).”
Notre Dame is not recruiting him to play defense, but he plays it because Speedway needs him to. Last year was a struggle. This year is better.
“I got kind of a chip on my shoulder. I didn't do as well as I wanted to last year on defense. I like playing D. Whatever it takes to help the team.
“I've got to be in shape and be ready when the game comes.”