In an offense that already had an embarrassment of riches, one of the most talented emerging playmakers wasn't even on the team when the season began.
Believing basketball would be his college athletics future, McCallie's Eric Rivers did not play football last year, and it wasn't until the second game of this season that the junior had a change of heart and asked to return.
"I think it was actually a lot of the guys on the football team who really stayed after him about coming back out and recruited him from the halls," Blue Tornado coach Ralph Potter said. "They knew what kind of athlete he is and what kind of player he could be for us, so I'm glad they helped change his mind."
Although he has appeared in only half the number of games as most of the state's players, Rivers not only leads his team but ranks among the area's top 10 in receptions with 23 catches for 389 yards and three touchdowns in just four games.
The 6-foot-1, 165-pound speedster has been McCallie's point guard the past two basketball seasons, drawing recruiting interest from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Georgia State, Lipscomb and Northern Kentucky.
Because several AAU basketball camps conflicted with football workouts, Rivers chose to concentrate on basketball in the summer before his sophomore year. The brother of former McCallie all-state quarterback JaVaughn Craig — currently the starter at Austin Peay — Rivers began to question his decision not to play football as the 2019 season drew near.
After watching the second game from the stands, he approached Potter with a request to let him rejoin the team.
"I knew he would make me earn my way back," said Rivers, whose mother, LaShandra, teaches grades 7-8 math at McCallie. "And I was willing to do whatever it took to show him and my teammates that I wanted to be out there to help them in any way. I practiced with the scout team and stood on the sideline for a couple of games before I got my chance to get back on the field.
"My coaches and teammates had enough faith to let me come back out there with them, so I want to repay that belief. I realized that I didn't want to miss out on making more memories with my friends out there. I had some guys asking me to come back, and that's all I needed to hear. You only get this chance once in life, and I want to help us do something special."
McCallie (6-0, 2-0), ranked No. 1 in the state in Division II-AAA, returns to the field Friday night for a region game against Father Ryan. It is the Blue Tornado's first home game in three weeks after back-to-back road wins were followed by a week off last Friday.
Rivers factored largely into McCallie's narrow win at rival Baylor two weeks ago, making at least one catch on all five of his team's scoring drives. The Blue Tornado failed to score on the four possessions in which Rivers did not have a catch, and he finished with nine for 160 yards and two scores, including an incredible diving grab in the corner of the end zone on a 37-yard heave by quarterback DeAngelo Hardy that converted a fourth-and-27 situation late in the third quarter with McCallie nursing a one-point lead.
"Having him come back out was a tremendous get for us," Hardy said. "Of course I was one of the ones in his ear trying to convince him to come back out there with us this year. We always knew what he's capable of with his overall athletic ability, so he gives us somebody on the edge who can go get six points on any play.
"Eric is a special player. I know he loves basketball, but football just comes natural to him. He could be one of the best receivers in the state if he wanted to. He's one of those guys I'm looking downfield for, because I know if the ball is near him he'll go get it and make a play for us."
Hardy, a Mr. Football finalist last season who recently decommitted from Kennesaw State to reopen his recruitment, has more than 1,600 total yards, and running back B.J. Harris, one of the state's highest-rated junior prospects, has run for 883 yards to help McCallie average 40 points per game.
When they're not making catches, just the threat that Rivers and fellow receiver Thompson Byrd (18 catches, 331 yards, three touchdowns) bring helps spread opposing defenses across the field to open running lanes.
"He can be a significant difference maker for us," Potter said. "He's a great athlete who understands space and leverage, and a lot of the passes he's caught look like he's gone up for a rebound. He's explosive and strong and makes us a lot better, because he can make plays that not a lot of guys can."