Saddleback High School running back Nate Primous is always smiling, and it's pretty easy to trace his source of happiness. He's lost only one football game in four years.
Primous, a 5-foot 10-inch, 165-pound senior, played on undefeated freshman and sophomore teams and last year was a part-time starter for the Roadrunners' Central Conference championship team, which finished 13-1.
This year, Primous is averaging 6.7 yards per carry and has scored 9 touchdowns for a Saddleback team that will take a 17-game winning streak spanning two seasons into tonight's Sea View League showdown against Tustin on Northrup Field.
Primous has displayed his versatility throughout his career at Saddleback. He started as a tight end as a freshman, was a running back as a sophomore and then alternated at roverback on the varsity as a junior.
He plays tailback and outside linebacker this year for Saddleback (8-0), which is ranked second by the Orange County Sportswriters' Assn.
Primous also is a deceptive player. He looks frail, but has the durability of players who weigh 200 or more pounds.
"Nate is not a big kid, but he's amazingly durable," said Jerry Witte. "He's our unsung hero.
"He always gives 100%. Nate has a great work ethic in practice. Some running backs will save themselves for game night, but Nate goes all out all the time. He's certainly performing better than I had hoped."
Primous played behind all-county running back Glenn Campbell last year, rushing for about 200 yards in mop-up appearances. He's gained 736 yards through eight games as a senior.
"I don't like to come out of a game, but once in a while, the coaches will pull me," Primous said. "I rarely get tired, and I think that's because we practice so hard. I get excited in practice.
"It's fun. I realize I'm the type of back who has to ease his way around people rather than running over them like Glenn did the last couple of years."
Primous excels in the Roadrunners' option offense, particularly on pitchouts. He'll take a pitch from quarterback Neil Carter and sweep to the outside, waiting for his offensive linemen to open a hole. Then, he accelerates, usually for big yardage.
"It's my favorite play," he said. "I get to be creative. I'm sitting back there looking and looking for the hole as the play develops. When it does, I run as hard as I can."
Despite his size, Primous has been hurt in only once, a 24-8 victory over La Habra in the season's third game.
"I got hit so hard, it knocked me out," he said. "I came to the sidelines and fell. I was swerving all over the place. I've never been hit that hard."
Primous' mother, Inez, declined to attend her son's games on the Roadrunners' lower level teams because she feared he would suffer an injury.
"She was scared that I was going to get hurt," Primous said. "I finally talked her into coming to my games when I made the varsity team, and she loved it. She comes to every game now."
Primous' father, Nate Sr., was a 20-year veteran in the Marines, serving as a Master Gunnery Sgt. The Primous family lived at El Toro until Nate was a sixth-grader. He would have attended El Toro High, the county's top-ranked team, had the family not moved.
The family moved again into the Tustin High district before Primous' senior season, but he elected to remain at Saddleback.
"My sister (Lamara) might be going to Tustin next year as a freshman," Primous said. "I know a couple of the guys on the Tustin team, but I'm approaching this game with the same winning attitude that I do any other.
"I usually know when I'm going to have a good game, because the linemen are having a good game. I've grown up with most of the linemen since the sixth grade."
Primous, along with skilled defensive backs Danny Ontiveros, Antwon Lark, Billy Thurmond and Frank Larriva, form the nucleus of the Roadrunners' team. The secondary leads the county with 19 interceptions. Primous takes pride in his defensive play as an outside linebacker in the Roadrunners' four-four formation.
"I like playing linebacker because it's my chance to hit somebody instead of getting hit," he said.
With that, Primous broke into a big smile. A winner's smile.