In First Season, Senior Might Set Knights’ Receiving Mark
BRIDGEWATER – Justin Layman has a knack for picking up his teammates.
On Tuesday, without a single word, the first-year senior wide receiver managed to perk up Turner Ashby High School football coach Charlie Newman, who has been hospitalized since Friday night’s homecoming game against Spotswood after being inadvertently kicked on the sideline.
Flipping through the Daily News-Record sports section, Newman discovered an extremely rare occurrence: The Knights – historically a run-heavy, smashmouth football team – are leading the district in receiving and passing through six games.
That’s no typo.
Against a brutal schedule, Layman, a 6-foot-3 basketball player in just his first varsity football season, leads the seven-team Valley District in receiving with 437 yards on 25 catches, while junior quarterback Evan Hanifee is comfortably atop the district’s passing chart with 839 yards on a Valley-high 52 completions.
“I saw that today, too. I actually got a paper here at the hospital,” Newman said Tuesday by phone. “I think Shane Brown is second or third in rushing, too, and that’s with the people we’ve played, too. That’s pretty good. Offensively, we’ve been pretty explosive and that’s been because of guys like Justin.”
Described by Newman as “a phenomenal athlete,” Layman is now on pace to break TA’s single-season receiving record of 727 yards, set by Chase Miller in 2010.
“He opens up our offense so much,” said Newman, also giving credit to fellow receiver Roy Cubbage. “… Justin’s kind of a go-to-guy. He’s not afraid to come across the middle and catch the slant. He’s not going to alligator-arm anything.”
Had it not been for an ill-timed injury, Layman might be eyeing even more records. During middle school, Layman said, he fell to the floor during an AAU basketball game and hurt his wrist just before football season.
After that, Layman drifted away from football and toward his beloved game of basketball. He also competed in track as a freshman and sophomore at TA, qualifying for the Region III tournament in the high jump with the second-best marks in the district each season. But he never was able to participate at regionals due to a nagging hip injury, and Layman decided to drop track.
Last year, Newman – Layman’s P.E. teacher both then and now – tried to recruit the 175-pound athlete to the gridiron. Instead, Layman settled on being a devoted fan, attending every game of a tumultuous one-win football season.
“I had a lot of friends who played for the team,” the 17-year-old Bridgewater native said. “I was just trying to support them, cheering for them and wanting them to win. It was tough seeing them lose.”
That’s when the idea further crept into his mind: He could be out there.
“I definitely thought about it,” said Layman, the son of Jeff and Kathie Layman. “I thought about playing last year. It just didn’t happen. I didn’t come out. I don’t know. I didn’t mentally prepare myself. I guess I wasn’t really ready for it and worried about an injury maybe conflicting with basketball.”
After some additional coaxing from Brown and other teammates over the summer, Layman entered the fall season totally committed. But even he didn’t anticipate 91 pass attempts through six games. He also didn’t expect to click with Hanifee so quickly.
By Week 3, a competitive loss against Jefferson Forest, Layman recorded his first 100-yard outing. He also had a rude awakening. While trying to make a tackle after Hanifee threw an interception, Layman was leveled by a 270-pound defensive lineman.
“I didn’t see him coming,” Layman said after a laugh. “It didn’t even really hurt that bad. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, are you all right? Are you all right?’ I mean, I jumped up right after it happened and was like, ‘Well, it didn’t hurt that bad.’ And I saw the other guy that hit me was still on the ground. I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’”
Moral of the story: Layman is tougher than he looks.
Now, with Hanifee pulling the trigger and beginning to find success with his legs, Layman and the Knights (2-4 overall, 2-1 in the Valley) have won back-to-back games for the first time since September 2010.
That season, Miller hauled in a TA record 53 catches and is believed to have become the school’s all-time leading receiver with 1,026 yards, though it is not conclusive in TA’s record book – again, perhaps because passing stats were often unimpressive in comparison to the Knights’ gaudy rushing numbers.
Newman said Layman has the potential to be a 1,000-yard receiver this year and a Division III star next year, if he chooses to part ways with basketball.
“He’s that good,” Newman said. “… We’re just glad we got him. He’s a difference-maker.”
For starters, Layman will simply focus on inking his name in the TA record book – and winning.
“It would definitely be a great feeling,” said Layman, a guard who averaged just shy of 10 points per game last winter. “Of course, it’s going to be a goal. But I’d rather us win out the rest of our schedule and make it to regionals than have the record.”
Layman and the surprising third-place Knights host Monticello in a non-district game at 7 p.m. Friday.