As far as position changes are concerned, T.J. Parker couldn't have been put in a better spot before the 2013 football season.
A move from slot receiver to running back led to a breakout junior season for the Cleveland High School player, who rushed for 1,256 yards and nine touchdowns as the Blue Raiders went 10-4. His return, along with five senior starters on the offensive line, should help new quarterback Austin Massey when Cleveland plays McCallie in the Madaris Best of Preps Kickoff Classic at Finley Stadium on Thursday, starting at 7:30.
Although the evening's headliner, it's not the only season opener on tap. The Ricky Ross era begins at Marion County as the Jasper team hosts Grundy County at 8 p.m. EDT.
The Cleveland rushing attack was held to 27 yards on 17 attempts in a 55-35 loss to McCallie last year.
"We have to do better this year," Parker said. "If we stick to what we do best and keep grinding, we can hopefully wear them down by the end of the game. We have our entire line coming back, which is a backfield's dream. Now we can have more fun, we know what to do and we can pick up the tempo in the run game."
A lot of the Raiders' improvements during the 2013 season went along with their progression in the run game, as Parker and classmate Raekwon Bunion -- an 800-yard rusher who will be out with a wrist injury for a couple more weeks -- started to assume more of the responsibility. With Bunion's injury, Parker will get more opportunities for carries, along with Massey, who is more of a running threat than his predecessor, Middle Tennessee State freshman Austin Herink.
"For me, the improvement started with me being more comfortable as a running back," Parker said. "When Coach [Ron Crawford] first told me of the move, I knew I could do it, but I didn't know the mindset of a running back. Through the season, I got better at looking for holes and my field vision improved: I could see things a lot better, and I knew where to run.
"The more I learned, the better I got."
His improvement led to an eventful summer. He attended camps at Auburn, Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State and began receiving interest from Memphis after running consecutive 40-yard dashes in 4.4 seconds at the Tigers' camp.
Crawford will be minus two starting receivers in addition to Bunion on Thursday, which is another reason the offense will try to lean on the line and Parker while Massey settles into his first game as a starter.
"We have to be successful running the ball Thursday, but it's not just T.J. We have to do some things to get Austin involved in the run game," Crawford said. "We know we have to do it, but McCallie knows, too, and they're going to try to put more in the box than we can block, so we're going to have to do something to get them off the line. We'll try our best to call good plays, attack the grass and attack where they ain't."
Added Parker: "Austin's not the same type of quarterback that Austin [Herink] was. There are things that Herink did that Massey can't, and vice versa. For us, getting him comfortable as the full-time quarterback is a top priority."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.