Multi-talented: Rze Culbreath can do it all on the field for Pioneers
WINCHESTER — Before games throughout the 2011 regular season — and even into the offseason when he would see him in the hallways at Millbrook High School — Pioneers football coach Reed Prosser would say to Rze Culbreath, “You owe me one.”
So moments after Culbreath completed his 60-yard weave through pursuing Tuscarora players after catching a ball at his own 18-yard line just three seconds before the half in the team’s season opener on Aug. 24, Culbreath had no problem summoning a little more energy to jog over to tap Prosser on the shoulder as they walked toward the locker room at halftime.
After being shutout in 2011, Culbreath had finally achieved what Prosser had been asking for — the first interception of Culbreath’s career.
“He said, ‘We’re even,’” Prosser recalled.
It’s probably fair to say that Culbreath never has to worry about falling into debt with the Millbrook coaching staff again.
With an area-best six interceptions — not to mention 36 tackles and six pass breakups, 15 catches for 326 yards and five touchdowns, and three blocked extra points — Culbreath has clearly given the Pioneers (5-3, 1-1 Northwestern District) everything he has.
“This season may be a surprise to outsiders,” Prosser said. “But to us, this is what we expected. Because he’s a phenomenal athlete, and he’s become more fluent with the game.”
Considering that football was practically a foreign language to Culbreath before his junior year only adds to his impressive command of the sport.
It’s not as if Culbreath — who’s typically a man of few words when it comes to discussing his athletic exploits — didn’t like football. He’s been watching the sport for years. But when you’re as good as Culbreath is at basketball, it becomes something of a year-round sport.
Culbreath was a Group AA honorable mention all-state selection and The Winchester Star Boys’ Basketball Player of the Year last season after averaging area-highs for public school players in points (19.7 points), assists (4.9) and steals (4.3).
But everyone who’s watched the speed, jumping ability, smarts and toughness that the 6-foot, 175-pound Culbreath has displayed on the basketball court has long known that he had what it took to excel on the gridiron.
Culbreath said he’s heard he should play from all sides, particularly since his freshman year at Millbrook. His father, his uncle, his friends, and defensive coordinator Curtis Hunter have done most of the hounding.
“I pretty much just tried to wear him down,” said senior cornerback/wide receiver Adrian DeNeal, a basketball teammate of Culbreath’s. “I just talked to him every day and told him he could be a good player if he tried it and kept at it.”
When Prosser discussed the possibility of Culbreath joining the team, he made sure that Culbreath understood that he would by no means have to say goodbye to basketball from August to November. Culbreath actually missed the first days of August practice because of an AAU basketball commitment and Prosser told him that’d he be able to participate in weekend basketball tournaments.
“We make concessions for kids who are multi-sport guys,” said Prosser, whose roster also currently boasts one of the best wrestlers in the state in sophomore linebacker Dylan Wisman. “We’d rather make concessions and have him be a part of us rather than take a hard line and not have him at all.”
Culbreath finally decided to join his friends on the football team last year, and the transition has been almost as smooth as Culbreath dribbling the ball on a fast break.
Culbreath — who was limited to playing safety on defense last year in order to ease his transition — said the hardest thing was not being able to move as fast as he usually does because of all the equipment he was wearing. And one of the reasons why he thought he didn’t get any interceptions in 2011 was because his footwork wasn’t as precise as it needed to be.
Still, Culbreath managed to record a team-high nine pass breakups to go along with 52 tackles. As those tackle numbers suggest, Prosser had no doubt Culbreath would be able to handle the physical aspect of football.
“All you had to do was watch him play basketball,” said Prosser, who seemingly attends more high school sporting events than any other coach in the area. “He steps in and takes charges from huge people with running starts. He goes to the rack with no fear at all, so his toughness is evident. It was just how long before he got a feel for the game of football.”
Prosser said Culbreath was a dramatically different player by the end of his junior season, and now, his imprints are all over Millbrook’s playbook.
In addition to playing safety and wide receiver, Culbreath is also the team’s punter (a 33.8 average with a long of 60 yards), one who is trusted enough to call fake punts if he sees something he can take advantage of, and he can also return kicks.
There’s been something for the highlight reel practically every week, and he’s even used his basketball footwork to help him make plays.
Against Broadway on Aug. 31, Culbreath caught a quick throw in the left flat at the line of scrimmage, his defender five yards in front of him. Culbreath stepped to the left before quickly stepping right to burst past his defender for a 14-yard touchdown.
“We like to joke and laugh about that one move,” said DeNeal of the manuever that, in basketball, requires picking up the dribble before making the first fake. “That’s called the Eurostep.”
Anytime Culbreath’s in space, he has the chance to go the distance. Against James Wood last week, Culbreath caught another pass at the line of scrimmage, only this time he had to pick the low throw off his shoetop. Culbreath burst inside his defender, then zoomed back out to the left sideline and went in untouched for a 55-yard touchdown.
“He can make anybody miss, it seems like,” Millbrook quarterback Justin Neff said.
Prosser said Culbreath “won the game for us,” against Harrisonburg in a 34-33 overtime decision on Sept. 14. Culbreath’s 74-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter when the Pioneers were down 20-7 breathed life into the team and, in overtime, he blocked his third extra point of the night to keep the score at 33-27 Harrisonburg. That allowed the Pioneers to win on the next possession on a touchdown and extra point.
And every week, there’s the blocking.
“He just hits everybody that’s in the way,” DeNeal said.
“He’s one of the better blockers I’ve seen at the high school level as a receiver,” Prosser said. “Most receivers do not want to block, but he doesn’t mind sticking his nose in there.”
The bottom line is that Culbreath’s development on offense — not to mention the development of the rest of his teammates on that side of the ball — has allowed the Pioneers to do things on offense they couldn’t do last year.
Millbrook (197 yards per game passing, 178 rushing) possesses the most effective balanced offense that the area has seen in a few years, and Pioneers’ offensive coordinator Eric Ratliff has been able to draw up a number of things out of spread looks because of players like Culbreath.
“We’re making use of our athletes,” Ratliff said. “T.J. [Bruce] on one side, Rze on the other. Defenses have to defend us side-to-side a lot more and defend more of the field than they used to against us. We have four good receivers who make plays, that do what they’re asked to do all the time. You just never know who’s going to get the ball.”
Culbreath might be quiet about his athletic achievements, but his words are loud and clear when talking about what football means to him. If he didn’t think he’d get a thrill out of it, he wouldn’t have tried it in the first place.
“Before I was just watching, but now I really love playing it,” Culbreath said. “It’s fun, and I just want to help us win the district.”
“He enjoys the competitive arena,” Prosser said. “He enjoys the tough times we have to work through, and hard work is a reward. He works his tail off becoming a better basketball player, and everything he gets, he deserves. He’s done the same thing in football.”
— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at email@example.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1