For The Beacon
Raceland felt like it had an unwanted player on its roster last season.
His name, Murphy’s Law.
When it seemed like nothing else could go wrong, it did. Raceland’s second game of the season debuted Murphy’s Law after starting quarterback Jake Heighton was injured during a 41-0 thwarting to Russell. Thrown to the fire would be sophomore Connor Hughes who led Raceland to a 42-6 win over Rowan County.
Just when things were looking up for the Rams as they traveled to battle Pikeville, Murphy’s Law happened again as Hughes would be knocked out of the game. Fortunately, Hughes returned for the next Rams’ contest and led them to a 56-15 win over Portsmouth West. Hughes was the glue holding the ship together until Heighton made his return after missing nearly six weeks of action.
“The job that Connor Hughes was able to do for us last year is admiral,” Raceland coach Mike Salmons said. “It was phenomenal and I wouldn’t trade him for the world.”
With the rollercoaster ride the Rams experienced at the quarterback position, they struggled mightily in running the ball, a trait that is uncharacteristic for the program.
“Our inability to run the ball last year was evident in the end and it prevented us from ultimately reaching our goal,” Salmons said. “Although in the end, we ran the ball a little more successfully, we couldn’t hold on to it. If you can’t hang on to it, it’s like not even having it to begin with. So, obviously that’s a 2020 goal for us to be able to run the ball more efficiently and to run it on downs that we want to run it on. Run it on downs that people expect you to run it on and still be able to generate yards.”
Raceland saw its first season since 2010 that a back failed to rush for 1,000 or more yards in a season. Seth Mills 352 yards led the Rams last season. Michael Meade is the lone returning back for the Rams in a position Salmons admits is a work in progress.
“We hope our backs get a little more experience as the season goes along,” Salmons said. “We don’t have someone who can carry the ball 25-30 times a night. If we do, it’s probably the quarterback. We are still going to have to generate by committee and hopefully we have a few more guys that give us some depth there this season than years prior.”
Although the Rams have several key pieces to replace in 2020, one element that returns is a group Salmons considers the motor to everything it does offensively, the line.
“We are hopefully that our offensive line is a little bit older and more experienced from one year ago,” Salmons said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of play makers you have on the field if you can’t play at the line of scrimmage and if you can’t, it’s pretty much fool’s gold. You won’t make it across the road as I always joke about in the playoffs. But that’s not a joke. It’s how we prepare our guys and it’s what we believe. We are older up front and our guys who are going to play have more experience. Maybe they weren’t ultimate starters every game, but they played quite a bit. Their age along with our quarterback play is going to be big for us.”
Heighton enters his senior season looking for his best campaign since earning the starting job as a sophomore. Although he missed much of the first half of the season, being on the sidelines allowed him to continue to learn more about his position.
“It helped me a lot because I could see things that I didn’t see when I was on the field,” Heighton said. “I watched so much more film while I was out and I feel like it helped me because I would help coach Connor (Hughes). Helping coach Connor helped me as a player.”
Heighton loses both his outside playmakers in Gunnur Lewis and Ethan Cox sending him back to the drawing board as new faces fill the voids left by the speedy duo.
“It’s going to take a lot of work to get the timing back,” Heighton said. “Last year, they (receivers) were all so fast and we had our timing down before the start of the season. Now, since we just started throwing the ball a little bit, it’s just going to take some time to get the timing down for the go-routes and slants.”
Salmons said Heighton simply needs as many reps as he can get to build that same familiarity with his new receivers.
“He needs to go through the season— we are a process driven team—and see how this process comes together” Salmons said. “He needs to experience some adversity with the new playmakers and see how we can overcome that together. His leadership and ability to just stay in control in the moment is contagious and it's huge for our team.”
As much as Cox and Lewis provided offensively for the Rams, they were the proverbial safety blanket in the secondary.
“It’s no secret that we got wiped out in the secondary from the virtual 2020 graduation,” Salmons said. “What people miss the most with Ethan (Cox) and Gunnur (Lewis) is if there was a breakdown or someone did break free, they could typically run them down. That’s something we aren’t going to replace. There’s nobody we’ve got that can run like that.”
Rather than searching for a replacement for the safeties, Salmons said he plans on using a platoon of players.
“We have a couple seniors who have been waiting their turn, program guys who are ready to go,” he said. “Noah Reeves, J.D. Melvin and Michael Meade come to mind. We’ve got to let those things sort themselves out. Hughes and Landon Newman can help us on defense. We feel like we have the pieces to the puzzle, we just have to figure out where those pieces fit. We may have the pieces to the puzzle. We just need to get on the field.”
One of the biggest pieces of the Rams’ defense, the linebackers, returns all four starters.
“Hunter Correll, Ethan Melvin, Will Nichols and Nick Bowling are four guys who played 12 games for us last year, playing virtually every down and every snap on defense,” Salmons said. “We are excited about that. The guys in front of them are ones who have been coming, the program guys who have been waiting their turn. Between the offensive and defensive lines, we feel like there’s a lot of question marks there, but for us to get where we want to get, it has to become a strength.”
Raceland touts a playoff-like schedule with its season opener at home with the defending State Champion Pikeville Panthers. Raceland will also entertain Class 3A powers Ashland and Russell while traveling to Lawrence County after concluding district play.
“We have been extremely transparent in our scheduling,” Salmons said. “We believe in playing good people and Pikeville is a very quality opponent. State champs and very easily could have been back-to-back champs. A lot of respect for them and I think they would reiterate the same for us. You get to find out real quick where you are at. Sept. 12, whether you win or lose, your goals are still in front of you. I think fans sometimes lose sight of that. If you win on Sept. 12, you don’t hoist a trophy.”
While winning every game is wanted, Salmons said playing when the chips are on the table is the most important part of the season.
“We are process driven and want to play our best football in the mid of November and the first of December,” Salmons said. “That’s our goal for 2020. That game (Pikeville), however, will tell us what we need to work on. We are excited for the opportunity.”