(This is the 11th in a series of preseason stories on new high school football coaches, or veteran coaches at a different school, and top players in the Chattanooga area)
After such a strong 2013 high school football season that took Cleveland to within a win of the Class 5A state championship game, it’s hard to fathom how senior running back T.J. Parker can do even more for the Blue Raiders this year.
But he’s got big plans.
Parker, along with fellow senior punter Zack Lee, are determined to leave coach Ron Crawford’s program on a high note with tons of lasting memories.
“It’s something I think about every night before going to bed and every morning when I get up,” Parker said. “This is my last high school football season. I want to make sure my last time is my best time.”
Cleveland had a pretty good run in 2013. The Blue Raiders finished in a three-way tie for the District 5-AAA championship – the tie-breaker gave Ooltewah the No. 1 playoff seed, East Hamilton was No. 2 and Cleveland No. 3.
The Blue Raiders went deeper into the playoffs than either of their district rivals, losing to Knoxville West, 49-14, in the Class 5A semifinals on a brutally cold night. West lost the following week to Henry County, 28-27, in the title game at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville.
“Last season was a total shock,” said Parker, a 5-foot-11-inch, 165-pound running back/defensive back and the Blue Raiders’ most vociferous leader. “I would never have believed we would go that far in the playoffs. It didn’t really hit me how close we came until the day after the West game. It was my first playoff experience since I’ve played football and it was an incredible season.”
That success has given the Blue Raiders a strong collective incentive for another run at the playoffs, not to mention the respect of coaches and media in preseason district polls.
At the league’s recent media day in Ooltewah, the Blue Raiders – they face Baylor in Friday’s preseason jamboree and open the regular season on Aug. 21 against McCallie, both set for Finley Stadium – were tabbed by media as the preseason favorite to win the 2014 title. Coaches picked Ooltewah to win it all, but had Cleveland right behind the Owls.
“You don’t forget what we did last year in the offseason,” Parker said. “We want to go one game further and get a shot at the championship. It’s a different team. We’ve gotten smaller, faster and stronger. We’re going to play a lot tougher and a lot faster. We’re going to spread teams out and wear them down.”
A year ago, Parker put up 1,489 yards of total offense, with a team-leading 1,256 yards and nine touchdowns coming on the ground. The team’s second-leading rusher, Raekwon Bunion, another rising senior, gained 794 yards.
It’s clear how much coach Ron Crawford’s offense relied on Parker, who also caught 18 passes for 233 yards and turned in a solid defensive effort in the Blue Raiders’ secondary that included three interceptions.
In a quarterfinal win over East Hamilton, Parker scored two touchdowns, including a 4-yard run with 1:27 left in the game that capped a clutch 98-yard drive. Parker rushed 21 times for 121 yards and the Blue Raiders finished with 189 yards on 37 carries in the game.
“We’ve got some linemen back and we need to lean on T.J. early,” Crawford said. “Does that mean we have to be hard-headed about it? No. We have to take what we can, dink and dunk the ball downfield, throw our screens and take our shots when we get them.”
Parker, who is being recruited by Memphis, Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, East Tennessee State, Eastern Kentucky and Lindsey Wilson, has some lofty statistical goals set for this season.
“At the end of the season I want to have 2,200 yards rushing and at least 20 touchdowns,” he said. “I want to be more productive, period. And I believe I can do that.”
If Parker puts up those kinds of numbers, his favorite school – Kentucky – could be making strong overtures to lure him to Lexington to continue his football career.
“That’s where I really want to go,” he said. “I went to their camp and it’s a beautiful campus and nice town. Their coaches reminded me so much of my coaches here. I fit right in up there.”
Parker lifted his jersey to show off a Kentucky T-shirt during a scrimmage against Rhea County earlier in the week.
Lee comes into play on those occasions when the Blue Raiders’ offense bogs down. He has the ability to “flip the field” in favor of Cleveland’s defense.
“He’s a self-made man,” Crawford said of Lee. “Kicking is something he decided to do and has gotten better and better. We have to take advantage of his ability, but I hope we don’t have to use him a lot.”
That would mean the Blue Raiders’ offensive unit is doing its job.
Just in case, Lee continues to hone his punting skills.
At a Southern Showcase punting performance in May at the Kohl Kicking Camp in May in Atlanta, Lee went through four sessions and averaged 40.56 yards with a 3.46-second hang time. He had a single-session best of 41.9 yards and a 3.92 hang time.
Lee, 5-10 and 195 pounds, is currently ranked as the nation’s No. 47 five-star punter among kickers who attend Kohl camps.
The Kohl assessment: “Zack showed good power and pop, but consistency with his ball-striking and working on keeping the ball tighter to his body on drops will help that consistency.”
Last season Lee averaged 38.93 yards per punt for the Blue Raiders.
Lee had never kicked before arriving at Cleveland High as a freshman. While coaches searched for someone to fill those duties, Lee volunteered and has held the job ever since.
“We needed a punter and I said, “I’ll do it,’ ” Lee said. “The first game I started was the Bradley County-Cleveland game that was on ESPN. Talk about being thrown into the ring of fire. Now I have a passion for it and I want to continue kicking in college.”
Pushing his per-punt average a bit higher might make college recruiters more serious about giving Lee the opportunity to extend his athletic career.
“Man, I want to get over the 40-yard hump,” Lee said. “I should be able to do that. I came close last year at 39, although I had an injury that affected my average.”
In a playoff game against East Hamilton, Lee’s right shin made contact with an on-rushing Hurricanes player, causing some nerve damage. Despite swelling, Lee continued to kick the rest of the game and played the following week against Knoxville West.
As for his future, Lee, and many prep kickers around the country every year, knows a lot of colleges would rather a punter walk-on rather than give that player a scholarship. However, many kickers often earn scholarships after proving their worth to the team.
“It’s a waiting game and mentally it’s tough,” said Lee, who is receiving interest from Virginia, Louisville, Memphis, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State. “There are a lot of walk-ons in college and I’m open to that. I’ve talked to Minnesota and they’re offering me a walk-on spot. I’ve heard that’s a daunting task.
“I’ve also talked to Jamie Kohl and he says colleges can even forget to sign a kicker, so I know the odds of getting a scholarship are slim. Jamie says that after signing day (February) schools in March or even April will call and say, ‘We need a guy.’ Sometimes that’s how things open up for a punter.”
So, all season Lee will drop back and put a strong right foot into every kick with the hopes that enough good ones persuade college recruiters to take a chance on him.
“If something is going to happen, it will happen,” he said.
Saturday, Sunday – Preseason jamboree at Finley Stadium.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)