Science Hill receiver Malik McGue’s uncle, Robert White, works for the Johnson City Power Board, and whether he’s returning a kick, catching a pass or making an interception, you can feel the electricity in Kermit Tipton Stadium every time McGue touches the ball.
The diminutive bundle of energy produced last year as a freshman despite stature more common to a seventh-grade team. McGue, now more solid and listed at 5-foot-6 and 145 pounds, returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown at Daniel Boone, one of the five TDs he scored as a rookie.
“That was probably my favorite one,” McGue said, “because that was basically like my first touchdown of my high school career. That just felt awesome to run back that kickoff.”
McGue also caught a 59-yard TD pass last year against Boone and had another productive performance in a win against the Trailblazers on Friday. He caught a 20-yard TD pass from Reed Hayes, one of seven receptions that were good for 145 yards. McGue has 18 catches for 405 yards and five TDs — all team highs — for the Hilltoppers, who are 7-0 for the first time since 1979.
He’s also rushed nine times for 112 yards and two TDs, returned a kickoff 46 yards and returned a punt 33 yards. McGue’s most crowd-pleasing play was probably an 85-yard punt return to the end zone that was called back against Greeneville.
He’s quicker than he is fast, but he’s shifty and speedy with a football in his hands.
“He’s got ‘ball’ speed more than anything; people never catch him, you know,” Science Hill coach Stacy Carter said. “Straight on he’s OK, but when he’s got the ball he’s something else.”
McGue’s ability to make would-be tacklers whiff when he’s seemingly corralled produces oohs and aahs from fans, although he’s more about self-preservation than spectators’ jubilation.
“I’ve always been like the smallest guy on the field,” McGue said. “So I might as well run past people or juke them. That’s the only thing I can use, because … it’s kind of hard to run over somebody that’s about twice your size.”
It didn’t take Carter long to notice McGue — then an eighth-grader — when the coach arrived from Sullivan South, and it didn’t take former Sullivan South assistant Jerry Weston long to notice McGue in a scrimmage after arriving at Science Hill from South this past spring.
“I remember coach Weston, when he first saw Malik against Sevier County and he intercepted a ball and made a couple of runs, we all looked at each other,” Carter said. “I mean, he does stuff we’ve never seen before — and as a sophomore. He makes some runs that are just unbelievable. People can’t even touch him.”
McGue, a first-year starter at cornerback who’s made two interceptions, has also quickly grown fond of Weston, a veteran who played at East Tennessee State when it beat Terry Bradshaw-led Louisiana Tech. McGue said he and fellow defensive backs Tre Webster and Will Adams enjoy Weston’s stringent regimen and film-study sessions.
“I can’t even explain what he’s done,” McGue said. “He’s improved our secondary so much. If it wasn’t for him I don’t think I would’ve even been able to play cornerback this year. …
“He’s really old school. He really believes in hard work, and he kills us sometimes in practice, but I feel like that really pays off during the games.”
The athleticism of Adams, a senior, is well documented, and McGue is quick to laud Webster’s.
“I think Tre’s the fastest one on our team,” McGue said, “and he can blow past you or he can juke you.”
McGue enjoys watching the Minnesota Vikings’ Percy Harvin and was a fan of former Science Hill player Issac Kinley, now a starting senior defensive back at Carson-Newman.
“I want to say I play a lot like Issac Kinley, where he was a small dude who could play just about any position on the field you put him at,” McGue said. “He played safety, quarterback, receiver, and he seemed to always have the ball in his hands and made good decisions. And he was quick and he was fast. I really liked watching him play.”
McGue played quarterback during spring camp before his freshman year because Hayes and former Science Hill quarterback Justin Snyder were playing baseball. McGue passed for two TDs as a freshman against Sullivan Central, and is the heir apparent to Hayes.
“Malik’s got a good arm,” Carter said. “I mean, it’s not nothing like Reed, but he’s dangerous. Anytime he touches that ball, he can go. He’s gonna be a different type of quarterback, but he’s gonna be fun to watch, too, in a different way.”
McGue is obviously more concerned about finishing strong this season, but he doesn’t mind the notion of grabbing the wheel on offense.
“I always joke around with the coaches and say that I really don’t like playing quarterback that much,” McGue said. “I like playing it, but I mean, I will do anything just for the team that would help us win. I would like to play quarterback and still play defense and get to return punts and kicks … but it really doesn’t matter to me as long as our team’s winning.”
The Hilltoppers have found a winning recipe with talent and unity. The latter didn’t come easily thanks, primarily, to an abundance of the former.
“I feel like we are family,” McGue said, “and I’m pretty sure that’s why we’ve had this great season so far, because everybody’s close and everybody’s going out and playing hard and playing for each other.”
Things might’ve been hairy early due to internal squabbling, but it seems like every Hilltopper is a mane man among teammates these days. Gentle giant Keenan Anderson, a 6-foot-6, 330-pound sophomore, became irate when a Sullivan Central player grabbed 5-foot-3, 125-pound T.J. Delaney by his dreads, and a number of ’Toppers were mad at Elizabethton when Grant Janeway was grabbed by his locks.
“One of the Sullivan Central players grabbed T.J. Delaney by his dreads, and for some reason that made Keenan extremely mad,” McGue said. “I remember that next play he went and pancaked some dude. That’s probably the maddest I’ve ever seen Keenan. When he does get mad he really can make things happen. …
“I remember at the Elizabethton game some dude grabbed Janeway’s hair, and that kind of got the team fired up. … I’m not sure if it’s accidental or happens on purpose or what, but it has happened a couple of times. It gets us fired up.”
And should opponents refrain, McGue’s always capable of hair-raising runs that energize the ’Toppers, too.