Hamilton West football coach Tom Hoglen believes senior receiver/defensive back/return man/punter Chris Charles will make a good coach one day.
Ask Charles a question about one of his many positions, and it’s easy to understand why.
Let’s take his role in the secondary, and how he approaches it.
“You just have to really understand your coverages,” Charles said. “If you understand ‘OK, if the receiver goes this way, I’m gonna have to break at this point because I’m gonna make sure that if I don’t knock the ball down I can still make a tackle.’”
That’s only part of it, however. Charles also feels it’s important to know what the other 10 guys on his team are doing.
“If you can understand ‘OK I know that in cover three, I have deep third but my outside linebacker is gonna have flats, I know I’m gonna have help over the middle with the free safety,’” he explained. “I feel like that also helps being able to play the receiver the best way possible.”
In understanding all these aspects of playing corner or safety, Charles then flips the thought process over when it comes to lining up at receiver.
“I believe defense helps me a lot on offense,” he said. “Playing free safety, I know that certain corners are going to have to bite on certain moves because of what their coverage is and what their alignment is. So it kind of helps me plan whether I want to get a good release off the ball, if the corner’s playing press, or how I want to extend the corner if he’s off.”
Charles combines his knowledge with a lean, athletic, 6-foot-3 build that allows him to outleap defenders for passes or out-maneuver them to break up passes. He also never stops learning. While most folks watch NFL football to root for their team or fantasy players, Charles is using that time as research.
“I like college football more, because it’s more exciting; I like high-scoring games,” he said. “But when you’re watching high school guys, some are good but some are maybe not good enough to make it to the college level. Then you have kids in college, where pretty much everyone is good, but they all don’t have enough talent to make it to the NFL. But when you get to the NFL it’s like, top notch. So picking up things from those guys helps me with my game.”
And what a game it is. After six contests this season, in which the Hornets went 3-3, Charles was on the doorstep of owning several school records.
‘I’d rather be known as someone who can play football versus just being a wide receiver or being a free safety.’
In his junior year, he tied Malik Snead and Tom Alexander with seven interceptions in a season. Alexander graduated in 1972, so the durability of that mark can be considered hallowed at this point. With four games remaining this year, he needed one interception to break a tie with Nick Laezza for a record 12 in his career.
Offensively, Charles was six receptions away from breaking Jay Sabo’s record of 76 career receptions, and 183 yards shy of breaking Sabo’s standard of 1,192 career reception yards. He needed five receiving touchdowns to surpass Pierre Odom’s mark of 12 in a season, and was two TDs from breaking Odom’s record of 14 in a career.
Entering Hamilton’s Oct. 20 game at Ewing, Charles had 21 catches for 332 yards and eight touchdowns, one punt return for a TD, 16 punts for a 34.4 average, 20 tackles and three interceptions.
Asked if there was anything Charles couldn’t do, Hoglen was succinct.
“No,” the veteran coach said, adding that he had him at quarterback one game when starter Hezekiah Patterson was out with a concussion.
Hoglen recalled that, as a freshman, Charles came in as a “tall, skinny, wiry kid.” Asked if he ever imagined Charles would be on the threshold of so many spots in the record book, the coach said, “I wouldn’t have thought so.”
So the question begs to be asked, what has he done to become so good? Let’s start with offense.
“He runs good patterns,” Hoglen said. “He’s not the fastest guy on the team, but he runs good patterns and knows the coverages and how to get open and find those soft spots. He and Hezekiah work hard together all year round. The have a good relationship, that’s why they’re able to do what they’ve done.”
It’s a relationship that started in sixth grade when the two first became friendly rivals.
“We always used to get into it,” Charles said with a grin. “He played HFL (Hamilton Football League) and I played Pop Warner and we’d go, “Oh, Pop Warner is better than HFL’ and stuff like that. When freshman year started we got really close. Sophomore year we realized we were the future so then we started hanging out all the time. I’m best friends with his brother (teammate Cire Peters), so we’re really close because of that. He went to some football camps with me. Whenever you see him, I shouldn’t be too far away.”
There is no Patterson to help on defense, however, as Charles is on his own when it comes to preventing a catch or bringing down a ball carrier. But he’s hardly unarmed.
“I think any time you’re at the school record for interceptions, you have good instincts for the game and good anticipation of what’s going on,” Hoglen said. “He’s our leader on defense and makes sure people are lined up; and he does a good job of calling out plays before they ever run them.”
It has been a steady learning process for Charles, who played for the freshman team in 9th grade and got a dose of varsity action as a sophomore. Charles took that 10th-grade year to understand coverages and why he needed to run certain routes in certain ways.
“Going into my junior year,” he said, “it was like ‘OK, now it’s time to put all that stuff I learned to use.’”
Charles caught 43 passes for 599 yards and four touchdowns, and made the aforementioned seven interceptions to serve notice he would be one of Mercer County’s top two-way threats this season. He has lived up to that forecast by adding yet another dimension to his game.
“My whole thing going into this year was being able to make the first man miss,” Charles said. “A lot of people know I can catch the ball really well and I can run routes really well, but it’s about what you do after you get the ball in your hands. I focus mainly on trying to make that first man miss, trying to make as much as I can with open space. That’s what I focused on this summer and it seems to be working out so far.”
Charles plans on playing basketball again this winter, saying “we’ve got a lot of young guys back with experience, and we should be OK this year. Plus I stay in shape because we do a lot of running.”
Staying shape is important, as Chris is also trying to decide where to play college football. He has been in touch with several schools, including Monmouth, but is still weighing his options and seeing what’s out there. Charles was quick to thank his coaches and teammates for giving him the opportunity to play college ball, saying it was their help and faith in him that made a difference.
It also helped make him one of the most versatile players in the area, which is something that should come in handy when it comes to being recruited.
“It will only help me in the long run, being able to do all that,” Charles said. “I’d rather be known as someone who can play football versus just being a wide receiver or being a free safety. I’d rather be known as ‘OK, if I put him here, he’ll still be able to get the job done, no matter where he’s at on the field.’”
He certainly has earned that reputation in high school.