When Jullian Metcalf started running the ball as a sophomore last year for Nashville’s football team, it took him about three games to figure out when over-the-road travelers have known for years.
“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” he said.
None of these cute sideline-to-sideline runs where he’s faking 10 defenders and turning a big loss into a big 50-yard gain. That’s not Metcalf’s strength. As he willingly admitted after practice on Tuesday, he’s not the quickest guy out there.
But he just might be the most dependable back week-to-week in southern Illinois, as borne out by his numbers over the last two years. The 5-foot-8, 160-pound junior rushed for 970 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, and enters Friday night’s SIRR Mississippi contest at home against Du Quoin with 742 yards and 12 scores.
“You know what you’re going to get from him every week,” said second-year coach Stephen Kozuszek of Metcalf. “He’s tough on the field. He won’t go down on the first contact.”
Metcalf’s consistency sticks out like a glass of grape juice on a white shag rug. He started the season with 85 yards and two touchdowns in a rout of Carlyle. He carved up Massac County for 139 yards and two more scores in Week 2, then picked up 90 yards and a touchdown during a weather-shortened rout of Wesclin.
Following an 82-yard effort in a loss at Anna-Jonesboro on Sept. 14, Metcalf tied a school record with six touchdowns in a Sept. 21 rout of Sparta. Kozuszek was going to put him back in the game if he had a chance to break the record, but it never materialized.
“I’ll have to give all the credit for that game to my offensive line,” Metcalf said. “Our coaches run them through hard drills every week. I couldn’t have scored six touchdowns without them, that’s for sure.”
Kozuszek isn’t sure about that. Metcalf has 24 touchdowns in 16 career games, an indicator of his ability to stick his nose into the pile and get the tough yards.
“He knows how to score,” the coach said. “He does everything he can to get the ball to the end zone. He’s really developed a nose for it. He’ll squirm through a hole, get himself sideways … whatever he has to do to score a touchdown.”
Metcalf’s lowest yardage total of the year came two weeks ago in a 42-14 rout of Carterville, which held him to 44 yards on 16 carries. Predictably, he bounced back with 157 yards and two touchdowns last week in a 24-3 decision at Pinckneyville that upped the Hornets to 6-1 and clinched a playoff spot.
It’s a big turnaround from a 4-5 2017 season in which Nashville was pushed around most of the time and couldn’t consistently stop teams. This year, aside from a 37-14 rout at A-J’s hands, it has permitted just 32 points. That’s part of the reason the Hornets made their debut in this week’s Associated Press Class 2A poll at No. 10.
“It started in the offseason with everyone putting forth the effort in the weight room,” Metcalf said of the team’s turnaround. “The first three games showed how much work we did. The A-J game taught us a hard lesson, and we learned from it.”
Friday night’s game could demonstrate just how much the Hornets have learned. Du Quoin humiliated them 56-13 at this time last year. The opportunity to exact revenge and quiet the remaining skeptics awaits Metcalf and his teammates.
“We just want to show the town that we’re a little tougher this year,” Metcalf said. “We’re not the soft team we were.”