September 6, 2018 12:03:00 PM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Le'Veon Bell, Leonard Fournette, and Todd Gurley make up a formidable group.
Kelvin "K.J." Smith knew that when he listed the standout running backs for the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers, Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Los Angeles Rams as his favorites. With all three listed at 225 pounds or more, it's easy to see why Smith likes the three bruisers. The Heritage Academy junior uses words like "physical" and "downhill" to describe all three trying his best to emulate the running styles of all three. Through three games, he is doing yeoman's work in helping to lead the Patriots to a 3-0 start.
"My No. 1 goal is to get faster," Smith said. "I have decent speed, but I don't have breakaway or blazing speed. When I hit the hole, I can make people miss, but I don't have blazing speed like I want to, so I am really working on that to get like my favorite running backs."
Heritage Academy coach Sean Harrison said the offensive line of Ethan Bumgarner, Parker Ray, Chapman Cooper, Clay Walters, Fox Walters, and Eli Acker have developed continuity after working together for most of last season and through the preseason. Harrison said transfer Ethan Howell from Victory Christian Academy has bolstered the depth, while the addition of offensive line coach Tobias Smith, who is in his first year after coming over from Columbus High School, has helped the linemen improve.
"The physicality has gotten so much better," Harrison said. "Ethan Bumgarner coming on for us has been huge. We always knew he could. Last year it was just a little fast for him. He worked out in the fall, winter, spring, and summer and came on. Chapman, Parker, and Clay have gotten better with experience, and you can't say enough about Eli."
Ray and Clay Walters said experience and improved fundamentals have enabled the offensive linemen to start the season at a more advanced point. Ray said the players also have a lot more confidence in each other to make things happen. He said the addition of Smith, who has taken over for Dontae Gray, has given the Patriots a more physical running back who provides balance to a passing game led by junior quarterback Carter Putt.
"He is downhill. He is a load," said Ray, who admits he has tried to tackle Smith in practice and it is tough.
Clay Walters said the offensive linemen have learned to be more physical. He said he and his teammates also enjoy watching Smith batter defenders and that his physicality is rubbing off on them.
A more physical offensive line has made live easier for Smith, a 215-pound junior. He has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in all three games and enters the team's game against Lamar School at 7 p.m. Friday with 46 carries for 472 yards and five touchdowns. Last week, he had 13 carries for 177 yards and two scores in a victory against Wayne Academy.
Harrison said Smith's physicality continued to show itself. He said he noticed Smith starting to go more north and south in the second half against Tupelo Christian Prep. Harrison said Smith opened the season trying to make too many moves, but he said he is learning how to trust his size.
"He has figured out he doesn't have to make moves or hesitate," Harrison said. "The guys in front of him are going to take care of business and whoever is left isn't going to tackle him normally if he just puts his head down and runs.
"He is what he is. He is 215. He runs hard, he is strong, and he just needed to figure that out about himself. I think he did that pretty quickly."
That sounds like a plan Bell, Fournette, and Gurley would love to follow. Smith said he is going to keep churning out yards so everyone notices the work of the offensive line. He said his coaches and teammates have stressed the importance of being physical. He acknowledges he has seen how valuable it is for him to be strong with the football, especially in the fourth quarter.
"I think I have played pretty good, but it is mostly because of my offensive line," said Smith, who lost 15 pounds since the summer by eating right. "I really wouldn't have any yards if it wasn't for them. The last game probably was the best game as far as holes getting opened."
Smith said the lost weight has increased his speed and added to his stamina, but it hasn't affected his physicality. He said he will continue to work on his speed in hopes of becoming more like his favorite running backs.
"I want to get better at breaking tackles and being able to make people miss in the open field," Smith said.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.