Jeff Hurndon Photography / “Running back is my heart and soul,” Union Grove senior Derrick Craine said.
McDONOUGH — With every run through the Woodland defense, with every burst into open space, Derrick Craine’s confidence surged and surged.
“My drive was to keep scoring and keep going,” Craine said.
Union Grove needed that from its senior running back in the Wolverines’ 22-14 victory at Woodland on Friday. It needed all of Craine’s 23 carries, 231 yards rushing and three touchdowns. It needed all of his punishing tackles, all of his soaring punts, all of his untempered energy to build an optimism that’s been missing at Union Grove the past few seasons.
Craine has been at the center of Union Grove’s auspicious start. The Wolverines consider themselves a blue-collar, tough football program, and no player embodies those qualities quite like Craine. He is the team’s punter. He starts at Sam linebacker on defense.
But his biggest impact has been on offense where Craine leads Clayton and Henry counties in rushing (328 yards) and has Union Grove off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 2009.
“We’re pumped,” Craine said. “Everybody’s mindset is to go undefeated. It’s been three years since we’ve been 2-0. It feels good being the only undefeated team in our sub-region.
“Being undefeated is definitely a big confidence-booster for us.”
This is a traditional running back the Southern Crescent is dealing with, a 5-foot-10, 225-pound block of steal that’s only getting better, according to Union Grove head coach Paul Burgdorf.
Burgdorf said he saw things from Craine on Friday he’d never seen before. Instead of a linebacker running with the ball, Craine had moments where he looked like an all-around running back — shifty and powerful, elusive and immovable.
“There were times where he just did a real quick stutter step and went,” Burgdorf said. “That’s kind of new for him. I guess his feet and athleticism have improved.”
So has Craine’s comfort at the position.
That’s odd considering Craine grew up playing running back in rec ball, middle school and ninth grade when he entered the Union Grove program. But he played strictly on defense as a sophomore.
When he made the switch back to offense last season, he couldn’t have been happier.
“Running back’s my heart and soul,” Craine said. “I love linebacker also, and [defensive coordinator] Coach [Jeremy] Ross would probably kill me if I told him, but running back is definitely where I want to be.”
Last season, Craine rushed for just under 1,000 yards and helped the Wolverines make a two-game improvement from 2010. But after a year away from the position, Craine said it felt like a transitional phase, a time to get reaquainted with the position he loves.
Nothing a little repetition will fix. With every rep during the offseason, Craine said he got more and more comfortable and the results have been immediate.
Craine had 97 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries while splitting time with sophomore Myles Vaughn in the Wolverines’ season-opening win against Locust Grove.
Then came last week’s outburst against Woodland.
“I just feel more relaxed in the backfield,” Craine said. “Last year, I felt kind of uptight a little bit. This year I’m just relaxed, calmed down. And I’ve got a great offensive line. They’ve definitely been big for me.”
Indeed, Burgdorf said “the strong point for us right now is the offensive line play and running back play.” He said the offensive line transformed from a question mark in the spring to a strength this summer. It happened in the weight room with a new training regimen. It happened on the practice field with more reps.
But it’s also happened at local buffets around Union Grove. That’s where Craine and the offensive line can be found every Thursday night eating together and letting the jokes fly. Last week it was Golden Corral. This week, as Union Grove gets a week off to prepare for Whitewater (2-0), it’ll be Benchwarmers.
The time together produces a connection between runner and offensive line that Craine said is completely different from last season.
“I love every one of them,” Craine said. “I’m definitely a lot closer with this offensive line than I was last year’s. Just being able to talk to them and encourage them to push harder, even when I’m tired and they’re tired. ... We can push each other to be better than we are.”
Craine also received a push Friday from a bit of a good news — his first college scholarship offer, from Mercer.
Tennessee-Chattanooga has expressed interest in Craine as a linebacker and Furman likes the idea of him playing fullback, Mercer made the ultimate sales pitch — they want Craine at running back.
“It definitely took a huge weight off my shoulders,” Craine said. “Now I can play, have fun with the game and go out there and do like I did Friday night.”