As Dalton High prepares for the first round of the Class 4A football state playoffs, one part of the Catamounts’ offense has become a much more important component for a team that appeared one-dimensional earlier this year.
Sophomore tailback Kelvis Rhodes remains a mainstay of Dalton’s offensive attack despite a nagging ankle injury, and his 1,453 yards and 20 touchdowns have focused the attention of opposing defenses on stopping the shifty runner. But with that focus, other opportunities have arisen for the Catamounts’ offense — and not through the variety of a passing attack.
Instead, fullbacks Robert Hardaway and Eder Mora have emerged as true threats on the ground, and their emergence in the past three games mark an evolution of the position, which this season has seen attrition, growth and a much more expanded role in the game plan.
“The fullback position has really kind of turned into a second running back position and not just a job for a blocker to blow up defenders,” said Hardaway, a senior. “To be honest, Eder and I weren’t expecting this either.”
The pair will be a big part of the game plan when the Cats, the Region 7-4A No. 3 seed, travel to face Region 6-4A runner-up Carver at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Atlanta’s Lakewood Stadium. It will be the second meeting between the two schools, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association’s website (ghsfha.org). Dalton topped Carver 14-12 in the 1967 Class 2A state championship.
Both Hardaway and Mora, a sophomore, are standouts on defense who didn’t expect to be seeing much time on offense this year unless it was strictly situational. Hardaway, a defensive end, has 118 tackles, five sacks and two fumble recoveries. Mora, a linebacker/ defensive back who also punts, has 132 tackles, three interceptions and four tackles for loss.
However, starting fullback Hunter Cleary was lost after the fifth game of the year after his arrest at school for allegedly selling marijuana-laced brownies. The next week, backup fullback DL Goins transferred to Ringgold.
But coach Matt Land said he knew exactly who to turn to when the position became vacant.
“I have been doing this for 20 years, and I am experienced enough to know that you better always have a ‘Plan B,’” Land said. “We knew all along that Robert Hardaway and Eder Mora could be special fullbacks. But we felt like we could do what was best for the team by letting those guys concentrate and focus on defense because Hunter and DL did a good job.
“But when those guys were no longer part of our program, it opened up the opportunity for two guys who were more than prepared. We had been working them in there, so it was just a matter of playing them in games.”
The results have spoken for themselves.
Hardaway took over at fullback the day of Cleary’s arrest, and Mora joined in the rotation after Goins left. Combined, the two have played at fullback in five games and have combined for 69 carries, 314 yards and four touchdowns.
While those numbers won’t blow any defensive coordinator away, they had better take note — the duo is getting better.
“Thankfully, Eder and I have been blessed to willingly take on roles like that, and Eder seemingly never runs out of energy,” Hardaway said. “With me, I like to think it is my desire. I will do whatever I can to help us win. It doesn’t matter where. I love the game so much and love being in whenever I can.
“Eder is one of those guys that is an athlete and is blessed with so much ability that he doesn’t know what to do with it. He can play anywhere on the field, so it is just another role for him.”
In last week’s 42-0 win over Pickens to clinch a state playoffs berth, Hardaway and Mora combined for 16 carries for 148 yards. Combined with Rhodes’ 182-yard performance on 16 carries, the trio made for a strong combination.
“I was happy to get the chance to play fullback,” Mora said. “On defense, I am always the guy trying to hit the other guy. Now, I get to make them miss me or lower my head and hit them. I was thinking I could get some touchdowns here or there, and it has been fun.”
Land said he knew as teams focused more on Rhodes, the Cats would need a new dimension on offense.
“They both are very unique runners, and they provide us an opportunity to do things much differently than we did with the other two fullbacks,” Land said. “I think more than anything is the fact that because they are such good runners, the evolution was we went from being a tailback-dominated offense where it was all about finding ways to get Kelvis the ball. Now, we have fullbacks who can do stuff with the ball once they get it and they aren’t just blocking backs.
“You are talking about two of the hardest working kids on this team, and that is why I don’t believe in luck. It was preparation meeting opportunity, and that is all it was.”
While Rhodes is still the speedster in Dalton’s pro-I attack, the two fullbacks offer not just another position to hit defenses from but also two differing styles. Hardaway, the sturdier of the two backs at 6 feet and 210 pounds, is more of a bulldozer who can shred a line for 4 yards and drag a linebacker for another 3 or 4. Mora is a slashing runner who uses moves in the open field. Hardaway called the combo “lightning and thunder.”
“What makes them so good is because they play so much defense, they understand their blocking assignments and running assignments on a different plane than a regular running back,” Land said. “They are getting the benefit of seeing it from the other side. With Robert, you have a much more physical back and you can kind of leave a guy unblocked because you know it is going to take more than one guy to take him down.
“With Eder, you are talking about a guy who is much quicker and is more of an elusive runner who is going to hit and spin. With him, you want to let him get to the second level.”
The Cats will try to continue to take advantage of both of their abilities on Friday against Carver, looking to get to a second level as well.