CALEDONIA — Bobby Rushing couldn’t allow the pressure to engulf him.
Not only did the Caledonia High School football team need Rushing to step in at center and replace an injured Cody Cliett, it also didn’t have much time to break in a new player, so Rushing knew he was going to have to stay composed. It also didn’t matter that everyone guessed the leg injury Cliett suffered in the season opener against Heritage Academy likely was going to force the rest of the season.
“I just had to take the spot and do what needed to be done,” Rushing said.
Rushing and his offensive linemates experienced their share of growing pains in week one in a 35-14 loss. But the Confederates have moved past the injury to Cliett and are using a few new pieces and a new-found confidence to build a new chemistry. That mixture has played an integral role in victories against Hamilton and Smithville the past two weeks. At 7 tonight, Caledonia (2-1) will try to make it three in a row when it takes on Lowndes County rival New Hope (0-2).
For Rushing, a 5-foot-11 1/2, 250-pound junior who is in his sixth year with the program, the move to center from a backup role and the addition of a backup tackle Carrlon Byrd, a sophomore, into the mix took time to adjust to. Rushing said the linemen have worked hard to get to know each other better. Technically, he said they have trained to move their feet better so they can maintain their sequence and hold their blocks better. Last week, Caledonia rushed the ball 50 times for 295 yards in a 35-21 victory against Smithville.
“We are running our feet better and holding out our blocks better so the quarterback can throw or the backs can find the holes,” Rushing said. “We just need to keep working. You get better every day if you work hard enough.”
Rushing isn’t the only new face on the line this season. Junior Ian Hartmann, who is in his second year with the program, has moved from playing defense last year to tight end. He said Ricky Kendrick, the team’s coach last season, liked the work he did on the scout team. A recommendation from line coach Jason Forrester to first-year head coach Andy Crotwell paved the way for Hartmann to secure a place as a key blocker.
“I thought it was going to be harder,” said Hartmann, a 6-3, 185-pounder. “Everybody says the line is a tough job, but I didn’t think too much of it once we got started.
“It has been a whole lot of practicing and getting to know each other and how we do our blocks and our things. We are well accustomed to it.”
Hartmann said the Confederates’ blocking “has been on key” the past few weeks, but he knows it has to get better, especially with the Class 4A, Region 4 schedule looming on the horizon.
Crotwell agrees, but he has been pleased with the progress the current configuration. He knows that the serious injury of a teammates could have been difficult for the linemen to overcome, but he said they have tried to move past it and establish their own bond.
“That mixture has since settled down,” Crotwell said. “They know what they are doing, what they are supposed to be doing when they get there, and they are getting better at technique every day. That is a hard-working group that cares a lot about being successful.”
Crotwell, a longtime assistant coach at Tupelo High, is building a new chemistry after taking over for Kendrick. He said the injury to Cliett has forced a new arrangement of linemen to move into new roles and to build new friendships. He said Rushing, Byrd, Tristan Nessel (a junior left guard), Jacob Sudduth (a freshman guard), Daniel Cunningham (a junior left tackle), and Stephen Sykes (a junior tackle) are communicating better and getting to know each other’s strengths so they can work as one.
Rushing has seen the maturation and feels it has been surprising.
“I think it came faster than some people thought,” Rushing said. “Some people were acting like after we lost that games we were going to get in a hole like in past years, but it didn’t happen like that. Our offensive line works better under pressure.
“I feel a lot more comfortable. I was scared I was going to get my knees taken out like Cody’s.”
Looking ahead to next season, Crotwell and Rushing like the prospects of having everyone back healthy and with nearly all of the lineman having another year of experience.
“I think it will be great because Cody like to play guard and I was center at first and we switched in and out,” Rushing said. “I think it is better this way. He runs quicker, so I think he is better off at guard.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.