News Column

Casey at the snap: Vian RB leads list of area's top ground-gainers

July 17, 2014

By Mike Kays, Muskogee Phoenix, Okla.

July 17--Eric Casey knows what the measuring stick is for success for Vian.

It's the Davis defense -- the unit that for two consecutive years has stopped the Wolverines at the Class 2A semifinal round -- with an assist from its offense in last year's 56-39 shootout.

"Really sticking to my game plan," he said. "Technique always comes in handy, making sure I read the right holes and do all the stuff I need to be doing right -- really, just being a good running back for my team."

OK, maybe the defense has to figure out the wishbone, just to give Davis a dose of its own medicine. But otherwise, Casey, considered by the Phoenix staff as the area's top running back going into the fall, is right. The offense has to run on all cylinders just to keep up -- and perhaps move past the obstacle that keeps Vian out of arm's reach of a gold ball.

The 6-9, 160-pound All-Phoenix Small School Offensive Player of the Year in 2013 comes into his senior season off a 218-for-1,871-yard season, scoring 29 rushing touchdowns.

"He grew up last year," Vian coach Brandon Tyler said. "He was a 160-pounder carrying 250 times and was very durable. He was fortunate enough to have some guys step up in the secondary which allowed him to go just one way."

Casey was a return specialist. He served in that role as a freshman and became a starter in the offensive backfield as a sophomore.

Time in the weight room has made him stronger and, Tyler hopes, more durable -- even while a matured quarterback in Rylee Simon and developing receivers will give the Wolverines a stronger passing offense.

"He's pushing 170 and got stronger than he was. He hasn't done a lot of speed work but he hasn't run much since qualifying for the state track meet this past spring."

Casey was a state qualifier in the 100 and 200 and also in the 400 and 800 relays.

He caught 7 passes for 146 yards. Those numbers should go up.

Others on our list:

2. Darren Bollman, Porum,

5-10, 185, Sr.

The All-Phoenix running back had 2,069 yards on 232 carries and 32 touchdowns in eight-man Class B.

"He was about 70 percent of our offense, but we'd look out at times and see seven men in the box. They keyed on him so hard, I'm going to have to do a better job of decoying him some and getting the ball to some of our other skill kids. But we're still expecting big things from him," said Porum coach Ken Hokit.

He carried 35 carries in the season-opener against Webbers Falls. That pretty much typified his load when healthy. He was hobbled by a rolled ankle and played the stretch with a deep thigh bruise.

"There was too much wear and tear on him," Hokit said. "And it wasn't like he was running a lot of sweeps. Most of it was inside the tackles.

"He takes pretty good care of his body, but we need to get him in here running and into shape that way. We'll decoy him more, but he'll stay busy and we need him at 100 percent."

3. Hunter Woods, Hilldale,

5-9, 165, Sr.

Woods had a string of four consecutive 100-yard rushing games when he became a starter due to injury last year and finished with 865 yards on 161 carries and 20 TDs. His challenge will be running behind an offensive line that lost three starters from a Class 3A quarterfinalist. But while the line matures, so has Woods' vision, said Hilldale coach Chad Kirkhart.

"Just seeing things and how things develop, he's much better and he's running more physical with that vision," said Kirkhart. "Not that he didn't run physical last year, he's just more that way because he's hitting the holes and finishing carries better."

4. Justin Hooper, Sequoyah,

5-6, 165, Jr.

Hooper showed what his head coach, Shane Richardson, called "an electric style" of running the football in 2013 when he had 1,272 yards rushing and seven touchdowns, including 240 yards or more in two games -- 246 against 3A-7 champion Locust Grove.

"He can hit for two, three, four yards and then make you hold your breath," Richardson said. "He can make the jittery move and he can get the tough yards.

"We found we could give him the ball 20 times a game which is something we didn't expect with his frame. But he's a state champion power lifter so his body isn't the normal 5-6, 165-pounder."

5. Jacouri Freeman and Cantrell Ashley, Muskogee,

5-11, 170, Sr.; 6-0, 190, Sr.

It's hard for Muskogee coach Rafe Watkins to draw a distinction here between the two guys who are battling for first-team status. With the run-oriented attack that the first-year Roughers coach brings to town, both have thrived in the early going -- Freeman especially in the spring and Ashley of late in the recent team camp.

"Cantrell still is getting used to being back, having not played since his freshman year. But he's made the most strides of any of our backs, to where we've got two first-team tailbacks," said Watkins. "Both are physical runners. Cantrell may be a better pass-catcher out of the backfield. But when Jacouri is on, he's got a chance of being a beast."

6. DeShay Bear, Checotah, 5-8, 210, Jr.

DeShay moved in from Minnesota in 2012 and slowly worked his way into the running game. He carried 106 times for 672 yards and 14 TDs and this year will be running behind a line of three guys in the 6-6 to 6-8, all in excess of 290 pounds.

"He is a big reason we made the push we did for the district championship and playoff run," said Checotah coach Chad Hendricks.

7. Wagoner's committee

The last couple of years, it was 2013 All-Phoenix MVP Lawrence Evitt handling the heavy lifting here going well over 5,500 yards over both seasons.

Roman Rodriguez (5-11, 197, senior) and K.J. Lee (6-0, 215, sophomore) have been getting bigger headlines for their defensive play. But both, along with junior A.J. Freeth, will run by committee early. Just who emerges is the question. Rodriguez had 471 yards rushing on 78 carries and 11 catches for 149 yards. Lee, the 2013 All-Phoenix Newcomer of the Year, had 394 yards on 62 carries.

"Roman is more of a receiving threat but we'll probably do more rotating them due to them playing defense," Wagoner coach Dale Condict said.


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