Xander Early is one of several freshmen who have had a big impact early in the season for Hancock County's football team.
Early is a fullback in the Hornets' option offense, which means he gets the ball a lot, but he also gets hit a lot even if he doesn't get the football.
"That's where we want to put one of our better running backs," Hancock County coach Bobby Eubanks said. "You have to be willing to get hit a lot. You don't always have the football, and we were worried about the wear and tear on him, being a freshman, but he takes it and he's ready to go right back in."
Early has grown up playing football in Hancock County, dating back to the pee wee league days for him and his freshman teammates. He knows the offensive style for the Hornets.
"For the offense we run, it's made for me to get smashed every time," Early said.
Early is 5-foot-8, 175 pounds and is strong in the weight room and in the backfield.
"We always knew he was a talented kid, big, strong, runs hard, sees the field," Eubanks said. "We knew he had that with him, but we didn't know what position he'd be playing. We wanted to keep him at fullback, we wanted one of our better guys right there."
He became a starter against Louisville Fairdale in the second game of the season with an injury taking Darian Clay out of action. Early ran for 74 yards and a touchdown in a 51-14 loss.
Early had 96 yards on 20 carries the next game in a 34-22 loss at Ohio County. The breakout for Early came in Hancock County's first win of the season, 36-27 over Edmonson County.
"Our second offensive play I scored from 25 yards," Early said. "The hole was wide open, our linemen were on their blocks. I knew I could get past the safety to the end zone."
Eubanks gave quarterback Cole Dixon, another freshman, credit for making good reads against Edmonson County.
"Cole gets it where needs to go," Eubanks said. "Xander did a good job staying behind blocks, he had 100 yards on six carries in the first half. Once he sees that open field, he's got some breakaway speed. He can turn a five, six, seven-yard run into 15 or 20 yards. He can jump cut, do things to get a few extra yards also."
Early has grown more confident each game he's played so far this season.
"Being a freshman I was nervous about making mental mistakes, but once I got through a couple of games, I was playing my game," Early said. "Once I got used to the high school game, got open space to run in some more. I was more confident in the way I was going to play after that first game. I watch the hole open up and go straight through it."
There have been four or five freshman starters going for Hancock County, and they've all worked together to find ways to improve and win games.
"He's a real coachable kid," Eubanks said of Early. "You can tell him what he needs to hear, he's receptive to that. He doesn't fold under pressure, he listens to it, takes it, absorbs it, tries to implement it on the field.
"We've got four or five starters who are freshmen, they're all in the same boat. They've all played a lot of ball together. Our senior leadership brings those guys along. Blaze Nalley, he's kind of a mentor for those guys, he plays every single position on the field, they've all blended together pretty good."