Although they've been somewhat of an unknown this season, T.J. Parker and Raekwon Bunion realize their importance to the Cleveland High School running game. So does the offensive line, and so does coach Ron Crawford.
A season after an anemic rushing attack limited the team's options offensively, the Class 5A fifth-ranked Blue Raiders are averaging 177.6 yards rushing per game in 2013, headed into their state-quarterfinal matchup Friday against eighth-ranked East Hamilton. Parker went over the 1,000-yard mark during the 31-7 win over Rhea County last Friday, while Bunion has 685 yards.
"People think that all we have is a passing game, but I think we've improved a lot in the run game," Bunion said. "It's a lot of fun because we can get the ball and show what we can do, but it's all about the offensive line. You can look at stats and tell our stats are because of the offensive line."
In the second half of the Raiders' 21-20 victory over Bradley Central on Oct. 11, they ran on 37 of 40 second-half plays, consistently running three plays over and over. Against Rhea County, when the Eagles dropped eight defenders into coverage, Cleveland ran for 296 yards.
"Coach told us before the season that we just had to wait our turn. He knew we had the ability to be good," Parker said. "Probably some of the most fun we've had this season was when we were able to have success running the ball, using the same plays over and over. It's a sense of pride."
Crawford attributes the team's success to an improved offseason program. The Raiders averaged 114.9 yards rushing per game in 2012 and missed out on the playoffs with a 5-5 record.
"The guys are bigger, stronger and faster," Crawford said. "It also helped that we were unable to run the ball last year and that we had D.J. Jones get his recognition early in the year, and that Tyler Davis has turned into a big-play guy. Then you have Eric Goodwin and Parker Smith on the inside that are very involved in the run game.
"[Quarterback] Austin Herink's ability to run the ball this year has also helped the running backs out, because he can get first downs and make people miss. It's all helped us spread the field horizontally so we can attack vertically."
Junior Koran Kennedy said he and his fellow offensive linemen were "angry" by the team's lack of success in the running game in 2012 and set out in the offseason to make sure that wasn't repeated. He also credited offensive line coach Heath Weir for the improvement at that position.
"Last year, we just didn't work together, and you have to work together because you'll end up running into each other," Kennedy said. "We started slow this season, but as the season's gone on we've gained confidence. We practice hard and we're prepared for games. We don't want to make mistakes, because if a play messes up we'll get blamed first, but I think our success running and throwing the ball is because of the hard work we put in the offseason."
Parker, who has 1,092 yards and seven touchdowns, said the relationship between the backs and linemen has played a vital role in the team's success. They go out to eat occasionally to help team bonding.
"We play for each other more this season," Parker said. "We hang out outside of school, and we're a lot more comfortable in practice. The program is rolling because we have linemen who are actually linemen this season, and I know I can trust them because there will be a hole to get to. That feels good."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.
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