By KYLE HOBSTETTER
PAINTSVILLE Last season, Johnson Central had the arduous task of replacing the state’s all-time leading rusher J.J. Jude.
The task ultimately fell to running backs Daymion Belcher and Jordan Young and fullback Josh Dillon. The trio ended up leading the Golden Eagles to a district title and a 9-3 record.
But even with great team success, Johnson Central coach Jim Matney said he understands the pressure of following a record-setting back like Jude.
“People still say who is going to take J.J.’s place, even though he’s been gone for two years,” Matney said. “But I think they are each earning a name for themselves. I’m sure it’s great pressure, but it doesn’t seem to bother them.
“I don’t think the kids think about following J.J.’s footsteps as much as they think about their own legacy and the legacy of the team.”
Each back stepped up to the challenge in 2012. Belcher led the trio, rushing over 1,500 yards, while Young put up 1,200 and Dillon came a just few yards short of eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark.
While each of them put a personal mark on last season, Belcher admitted there are still comparisons to Jude.
“I felt a little pressure,” Belcher said. “It’s tough when everyone wants you to be just as good as him. So I just go out and try to think that I can be better.”
Following Jude was pressure enough but, since Matney took over the program a decade ago, expectations for Johnson Central running backs have been set high.
It seems after their performance last year, Matney has a reason to have those high expectations again.
“We’d be disappointed if we didn’t have three 1,000-yard rushers,” Matney said. “We just try to take what the defense gives us. And having those three makes us a little harder to stop. If (the opposing team) comes out and says, ‘Tonight we’re going to stop Belcher,’ then you’ve got two more 1,000-yard rushers to go to in Young and Dillon.
“It’s good to have those threats. The last two years we’ve been young and we’ve been building up for this.”
Each of those threats brings something different. Belcher has the complete back build with a good mix of speed and strength. In Young, there is the classic speed back who builds up his quickness in the offseason as an All-State wrestler. Dillon takes all the punishment, and is also a threat to break a long run at any time.
“I feel like any of us can get a first down or a touchdown,” Young said.
“Or break free for a 50-yard touchdown,” Belcher added. “All of us have that kind of ability.”
While all three couldn’t be blamed for taking credit for their accomplishments, they all quickly voiced the two key aspects to the Johnson Central offense.
Those two things were Matney’s offensive scheme (the “belly” offense) and the Golden Eagles reloading at offensive line each year.
“I think the yards just come with the offense,” Dillon said. “We have a good line and our system gets a 1,000-yard rusher every year. If you just follow your blockers, you’re guaranteed a first down every time you touch the ball.”
“We’re averaging pretty good size-wise,” Young said about the line. “We run for the yards, but there wouldn’t be any yards without them. We owe it to them.”
Even though the spotlight will be on Belcher, Young and Dillon, Matney pointed out that there are younger guys behind them who could step up and put up big yards too.
He added that he wouldn’t be surprised to see the three junior varsity backs become 1,000-yard rushers soon.
“We got three junior varsity running backs that are going to be pretty darn good too,” Matney said. “Conner Ratliff and Bryce Skaggs are tremendous young running backs and they will see some playing time this year. We have a good group coming up.”
Matney believes he’s going to need all the help he can get for this season, which consists of what he describes as one of the hardest schedules in the state.
Matchups on the docket include trips to Ashland, Belfry and Ironton and a home game against Harlan County, which returns most of a team that went to the KHSAA Class 5A state semifinals.
“This has to be one of the most challenging schedules in the state,” Matney said. “That’s our daunting task. Our program has come a long ways, but this is a big task for us.”
But the backfield trio all agreed — no matter how hard the schedule, the goal is the same: Make a run to state.
“I think we can make a good run at state this year but it’s going to be tough,” Dillon said.
“We want to beat Highlands,” Belcher said about the six-time defending Class 4A state champions. “Everyone says we can’t but Ashland stayed with them for a half (last year) and we beat Ashland ... so you never know.”
KYLE HOBSTETTER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658.