The former Westminster standout and current University of Cincinnati player scored on a 90-yard kickoff return early in the fourth quarter to put the Bearcats ahead for good in their 31-24 victory over Vanderbilt in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., last December.
Abernathy, the son of former State Sen. Ralph David Abernathy III and the grandson of late civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy Sr., hopes to come up with some more heroics for Cincinnati as it takes on Duke in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday.
The 5-foot-7, 161-pound sophomore running back played a key role for the Bearcats this fall as they compiled a 9-3 record and won their fourth Big East Conference title in five years.
Abernathy is looking forward to his second college postseason contest.
“The bowl game is kind of a reward for us players, for all the hard work we put in during the offseason and the regular season,” he said. “It’s always exciting to play in a bowl game and it’s a lot of fun.”
Abernathy got a big taste of what it’s like to play in a bowl last year, when he returned two kickoffs for 120 yards in Cincinnati’s Liberty Bowl win over Vanderbilt.
His 90-yard return for a touchdown with 13:51 remaining in the game was a turning point for the Bearcats, who were trailing 21-17 at the time.
“To score on a 90-yard kickoff return and to do it as such a pivotal moment was very exciting,” Abernathy said. “I was just happy to be able to help my team win the game.”
Abernathy came to Cincinnati after an outstanding high school career at Westminster, where he was a Class AA All-State selection by the Georgia Sports Writers Association as a junior after rushing for 1,200 yards and 21 touchdowns.
He was primarily a kickoff returner as a freshman in ’11, gaining 1,034 yards on 39 returns and scoring a touchdown in 11 games to help lead the Bearcats to a 10-3 record and its Liberty Bowl victory.
The 2012 season has seen a bigger role in the Cincinnati offense for Abernathy, who leads the team in all-purpose yards with 1,391 yards in 13 games.
He also leads the team in kickoff returns with 728 yards on 28 attempts, is second in rushing with 394 yards on 69 carries for a 5.4-yard average and is fourth in receiving with 297 yards on 25 receptions and three more scores.
“My freshman year, I was strictly a kickoff returner,” Abernathy said. “But, this year, my role has stepped up a little more. I’m very grateful to the coaching staff for the extra responsibility they have given to me, being a true sophomore.”
Westminster assistant coach Joe Sturniolo has been keeping track of Abernathy’s progress on the college level and is impressed by how far he has come.
“We’ve been in contact with the Cincinnati coaches and they are very happy with Ralph,” Sturniolo said. “He’s had a good season this year and we’re proud of what he’s accomplished.”
Abernathy and his Cincinnati teammates experienced somewhat of a road bump in their preparations for the Belk Bowl when coach Butch Jones resigned Dec. 7 to become the new coach at Tennessee and was replaced by Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville.
Nevertheless, Abernathy said things are going smoothly for the Bearcats under interim coach Steve Stripling, who will guide the team in the bowl game.
“It’s always hard when the head coach resigns, but everything has gone really good for us,” he said. “There are some things you can’t control and are entirely out of our hands. The only thing we can control is our effort on the field. We’re a good team and we’re really strong together. We have a chance to win 10 games, which would make us an elite team, and that’s what we’re focused on right now.”