What goes through the mind of a high school cornerback or safety when they see 6-foot-1, 300-pound Isaiah Raikes in the backfield set up for a running play at the goal line? Probably something along the lines of, "oh, boy. I hope this big dude runs to the other side of the field."
Raikes, a junior at St. Augustine Prep and Glassboro native, has steadily been making a name for himself as a premier defensive lineman, and has already received scholarship offers from schools such as Duke, Wake Forest, Baylor and Indiana, Hermits coach Pete Lancetta said. But he's also become a huge — literally — offensive weapon that opposing defenses are finding very difficult to stop in goal line and short yardage situations. When you need a yard or two, it's never a bad option to hand the ball off to a guy who would be one of the biggest offensive linemen on the team, if he was an offensive lineman.
"If he's scoring, whatever he wants to do, I don't care. Raikes is doing great running the ball — he's great at everything right now and that's a big key for us. He was getting a little attention last year in his first year here, so I expected him to have a big year this year. He's getting a lot of offers, and it's for a reason. It shows out here on the field," senior linebacker Joey Kolonich said. "He's a force (on defense). If you look at the film, he's either at the line of scrimmage or behind the line of scrimmage. He's not getting driven off the ball even by two or three guys."
"We call him 'the bowling ball.' He's a 300-pound running back, and that works for a short yardage situation. He's also a key piece for us on defense, as a junior his role is solidifying now and he's starting to hurt offenses now. That's really helping the linebackers. He's getting guys off linebackers and we have better gaps to read and the defensive ends are able to move around a little more," added another senior linebacker, Joe Bonczek.
Holy Spirit had no answer for Raikes in short-yardage situations during the Spartans' 27-14 loss to the Hermits on Oct. 12. With Prep trailing, 8-7, midway through the second quarter, a drive came down to third-and-1 at the 2-yard line. With Raikes in the backfield, everyone in the stadium knew what was coming, but the Spartans were powerless to stop it. 'The bowling ball' knocked down all the pins, barreling his way into the end zone to put the Hermits up 14-8.
A couple of field goals from Luke Snyder put Prep up, 20-8, but Holy Spirit came back to cut the deficit to 20-14 on a nifty catch-and-run from Mike Preston. But with a little more than five minutes left in the game, St. Augustine drove down inside Holy Spirit's 10-yard line. Quarterback Chris Allen handed the ball off to Raikes, and Raikes showed he's a little more than just plowing forward for two yards. The hole was filled quickly, so the big fella bounced the run outside to the left and raced down the sideline for a 9-yard touchdown run that put the Hermits up 27-14 and effectively put the game on ice.
"I always wanted to play running back but never really lost the weight, so I stepped into the defensive line position. I get in where I fit in," Raikes said. "I've been playing defensive tackle pretty much my whole life. Working out and competing against our offensive line in practice — we like to make each other better. Iron sharpens iron, as we all know. I always like to get after it and compete against anybody I'm going up against."
"He's one of our backs, that's for sure. Those were some big carries with those packages we have," he said. "He has 12 big-time Division I offers and that's not a surprise. In the offseason we'll have our lifting program after school and then he'll go home, do his homework, and then work out again on position specific stuff with some really good trainers. He has a great work ethic. He does well in school, has a great personality and he's a leader, along with all these seniors."
The Hermits began the season 1-2, but the win over Holy Spirit was the Hermits' fourth straight as they improved to 5-2 overall. A big factor in the turnaround has been the play of the defense, and Raikes has had a huge role in that. The Hermits were manhandled by St. Joseph in the third game of the season, and that provided a wake-up call for a defense that wasn't playing up to its ability.
"After that St. Joe game, the coaches really tightened things up. They felt our practices weren't what they should be. The key for the defense has been practice, practice, practice and just working on everything. The coaches really got on us," Raikes added. "We were planning on having a great start but then we lost those two games. But we've bounced back and gotten on a roll, and we don't plan on stopping anytime soon. I felt like I needed to step into a leadership role. I didn't think I was doing all that I could in the beginning of the season, so I stepped up, along with the rest of my teammates."
"That was a wake-up call. After that game, we knew something wasn't right and we had to get things together. Being in a leadership role, you have to get the guys together and start diagnosing the problems, and you have to solve them. Talking with the guys and working with them, we're starting to understand our roles, and we're working harder," Bonczek said. "I think it's just physicality. We're starting to bond as a group now and starting to get guys in their roles now. Everybody is understanding their roles and what we're trying to do in practice. It's been practice for us, we've been practicing really hard ever since that loss to St. Joe's. State College hit us, then we got a win against Lenape, but St. Joe his us hard and we knew we had to start working harder. We're focusing for three hours now in practice, and that's been showing on the field."
"They've been getting better and better. They believe in what we're doing defensively and it's showing," Lancetta added. "Our work ethic in practice has been getting better and that correlates. They're finally realizing that. We're pretty good against the run and I guess that's why they threw the ball so much — and effectively for a while. Ocean City threw the ball effective against us, too, but in the end we only gave up six points to them and 14 to Holy Spirit. We came up with turnovers, which was big, and for the most part we protected the ball. And that's a big part of it."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays