published Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Hargis: Young Tornado quickly impressive

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    McCallie's Javaughn Craig (3) evades Cleveland's Darius Pillow (33).
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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CLEVELAND, Tenn. — McCallie's roster is so young that by the time Thursday night's season opener ended, it was likely past bedtime for many of the players.

In what quickly turned into a track meet on grass as McCallie and Cleveland combined for 35 first-quarter points, the Blue Tornado's kiddie corps proved that while they still have a ways to go to become a solid defensive unit, there is talent galore to build on. And the offense is going to cause opposing defensive coaches to develop facial tics as they try to figure ways to slow the Tornado.

Seven of the 18 players who got in the game on defense for the Blue Tornado are sophomores, while the offense is led by a sophomore with a world of promise.

Three weeks ago JaVaughn Craig was playing receiver for the Blue Tornado and was listed only as the team's "emergency" quarterback. After an injury to the team's senior starter, Craig went from backup plan to trigger man, and Thursday night he accounted for 381 total yards and four touchdowns to lead a 55-35 victory.

Craig, whose only previous start had been one quarter of action in last week's jamboree, completed 15 of 19 passes for 293 yards and two TDs and ran for 88 yards and two scores. His escapability helped prolong several plays, and the kid who looks like he doesn't shave yet sliced up a veteran defensive opponent.

"We ask our quarterbacks to make so many decisions, it's a tough position to learn," McCallie coach Ralph Potter said. "Some guys have a knack for it and JaVaughn can make a lot happen. He's something special athletically."

What a way to kick off the season. The game included only one punt and the teams combined for 1,104 total yards. And kudos to second-year Blue Raiders coach Ron Crawford and the school's administration for agreeing to play McCallie. Very few area teams are still willing to take on Chattanooga's two Division II programs (Baylor, McCallie), which has stripped our area of some great rivalries.

In year two of Potter's return as coach at his alma mater, the Blue Tornado are clearly more athletic and physical up front, despite their youth. Three of the four members of one of the state's top 4x100 relay team are key players.

The concern of playing so many underclassmen showed up in the secondary, which allowed 478 passing yards to a talented Cleveland passing attack. But the promise also showed in more than just Craig's play as fellow sophomore defensive lineman Corey McDonald had two sacks and several quarterback hurries and classmate Jeffery Coleman returned a kickoff 94 yards for a score in the third quarter, answering Cleveland's 14-0 run that had cut McCallie's lead to six points.

"That was a huge momentum shift for us," Potter said. "Jeffery made a great play. There were a few times tonight when our inexperience showed and hurt us and others when those young guys stepped up and made some big plays."

When asked how excited he is at the potential of his underclassmen, Potter quickly cut short any more praise.

"I don't want our kids to think about anything that far ahead," he said sternly. "All we should be thinking about is taking care of next week. We have to focus on just getting better."

But the road to getting better certainly is smoother with a loaded group of underclassmen to work with.

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...

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