Gabe Abel has to be credited for his honesty. The Ewing High senior doesn’t try to paint a well-sculptured, physical picture of himself as a youngster.
“When I played for the Lawrence Cardinals (in the West Jersey Youth Football League), they had me playing both ways on the line,” Abel said. “I was like fat, and like two feet tall. I didn’t start growing ’til my freshman year.”
That spurt was fortuitous for the Blue Devils, as Abel has grown into a standout running back this season. Through a 2-1 start, Gabe was among the Colonial Valley Conference’s leading rushers with 434 yards and 5 touchdowns on just 43 attempts — which comes out to just over 10 yards per carry.
His efforts helped Ewing double its win total from last year, when the Devils went just 1-9. In his first year as varsity full-timer, Abel was the team’s leading rusher with 483 yards in a season cut short by a concussion he suffered early in a game against Cinnaminson, which forced him to miss the final two contests.
“That was so frustrating,” Abel said. “I was so angry. That’s what drove me in the off season. It was tough (due to Covid-19). I had to get out on my own every day. I lifted on my own, lifted with my teammates, went to personal gyms, went out and ran, stayed in the crib and did body weight exercises. Anything I could.”
It has paid off this season as Abel came out on fire. He rushed for 221 yards and 2 touchdowns in an opening-day win over Hopewell; and followed with 130 yards and a TD in a loss to Nottingham.
“He was right there last year,” coach Matt Dalessio said. “He had some nagging injuries all year and then the concussion. Obviously he feels a little more pressure because it’s his senior year and he has a little more on his back; and he’s shown more leadership. But it’s the same kid, same skill, just elevated a little bit.”
After his early explosions, it stood to reason teams would begin to key on Abel. He was “held” to 79 yards in a Week 3 win over Steinert, but did manage two more touchdowns. And with the Spartans watching out for the running back, quarterback Tariq McKinney had a career day, throwing for 165 yards and two touchdowns and running for another TD.
“He really opens up our passing game,” McKinney said. “They always expect him to get the ball on play action. He’s a big part of our offense, both passing and rushing. They gotta adjust to him, and we just go over the top.”
While Abel has sprouted from his diminutive frame of childhood, he still stands below 6-feet. But he has chiseled out a powerfully strong body that combines speed with strength.
“He’s a state-caliber track kid, so we know he’s fast,” Dalessio said. “He’s also tough and he’s the strongest kid on the team. He’ll out-bench anybody, he’ll out-squat anybody. When he can’t get in that weight room he’s upset about it. He lives in there. It was tough for him when he was in quarantine but he has his way of getting his workouts in there. He’s just strong, a real ball of athleticism and fury.”
Abel enjoys putting that power to use as a runner, wishing to dole out as much punishment as he receives.
“I feel like I’m very physical,” he said. “I think people see my size and think I’m not gonna hit them, and then, bam! And they’re like “Oh!”’
After his career as a lineman, Abel wanted to see what he was capable of elsewhere on the field thanks to his expanded size. In ninth grade, he took an interest in running back and found his position.
“Freshman year I dominated (on the freshman team),” Abel said. “The second year, it was the same thing with JV. They started moving me up to varsity toward the end of the year.”
Abel got into four games and ran for a respectable 183 yards. Last year he was the featured back on a young team and continued to gain an understanding of the position’s nuances.
“I had to learn vision and patience,” he said. “Patience was probably the biggest thing I had to learn. That’s really been the thing this year, letting the blocks develop.”
When the blocks aren’t there, he still keeps plugging.
“If there’s nothing there, I tried to do my best to turn nothing into something,” he said. “You gotta do anything possible.”
In assessing Abel’s talent, Dalessio feels he possesses the full package, which has helped him gain attention from Central Michigan and Ithaca.
“He has good vision and he’s not afraid,” the coach said. “He’s gonna look for a lane anywhere and put his foot down and go. He’s not afraid to put his shoulder down to get through anybody or to get around anybody. He puts it all together. He has everything you need to be a good runner.”
He also puts in the time looking at film, saying “All I do is watch highlights, break it down, see what I can improve on.”
There is one thing he knows he wants to improve on.
“I want to be more of a receiving threat and be vertical down the field,” said Abel, who was actually tied with Tyreek Rollins for the team lead with five receptions through three games.
And if there is one thing he would like to re-live from his past, it would be getting back in the trenches. But only on one side of the ball.
“I could play a little bit of line,” he said. “It was fun up there. I want to play some d-line. Do some dee-ing again.”
And why not. It’s always more fun tackling people when you’re bigger than two feet and fat.