Josh Drake couldn’t have imagined his career would’ve gone like this.
As a freshman, he was the leading rusher for eventual 4AA football semifinalist Middle Creek, but he was sidelined after breaking his left leg.
He’ll get finally get his chance to play in the 4AA East final Friday, as the Mustangs once again host Wake Forest (7:30 p.m.). But Drake, now a senior, won’t touch the ball unless he’s forcing a fumble.
Breaking his leg sent him on a new course.
The former 215-pound running back is now a 270-pound starting defensive tackle and a natural fit.
“He’s got such great feet because he’s used to playing running back,” coach Randy Ragland said. “I call him the dancing teddy bear because he’s so light on his feet, but he’s a big kid and athletic.”
Drake doesn’t remember the hit that changed his football career, just the feeling of lying on the field knowing something was wrong.
“I knew I couldn’t get up. It was really painful,” said Drake. “I felt the world was over. I was up-and-coming, a lot of colleges were sending me letters and stuff. I really thought it was over for my career.”
But doctors told Drake he was lucky. He had broken his left femur in that second-round home game against South View, but the location of the injury could’ve just as easily caused him to tear all the ligaments in his knee.
He spent the next two months in a wheelchair and another month on crutches, all the time looking forward to getting back on the field after rushing for 619 yards and four touchdowns. But he was gaining weight from the inactivity.
As a sophomore, he was behind everyone else.
“I took probably half the season off and really tried to come back and get in the rhythm of things and I really couldn’t because of the weight I put on, about 20 pounds or so,” Drake said. “That year, when I did (suit up), I wasn’t really getting any playing time and I knew it was probably because of my weight – I got slower.”
His junior year started much the same way. In the middle of the season, as he was falling behind on the depth chart, defensive line coach Kendal Ray had a question for Drake. Ray thought Drake could play college football, and offered the junior a chance to move to his position group.
It would be a fresh start for Drake and help the team as well.
“He was such a good-sized kid and we needed some kids to play line, so he went and played defensive line for us,” Ragland said. “And he’s doing a great job.”
Drake didn’t want to at first, but came to realize this was his best opportunity. After rushing for 91 yards and one touchdown through the first half of the year, Drake moved to the other side of the ball.
If Drake was slow for a running back, he was quick for a defensive tackle. He showed great promise. He began to bulk up this summer, and Ray offered to work with him on the fundamentals of the position.
“I knew I had the quickness and I was faster than everyone else, I just had to get the technique,” Drake said. “I really couldn’t be more grateful to (Ray) for that.”
He had arguably his best game last week, making six tackles and a sack in a 49-30 win against rival Garner in the third round.
Drake remembers the first 4AA East final, a 24-23 loss to Wake Forest, very well.
The injury kept him from factoring into run game on that night, but on Friday he will in a different sense.
When Drake scouts Wake Forest’s rushing attack, his teammates have to listen. It wasn’t long ago he was in the ball carriers’ shoes.
“We’ve just got to shut down their run game,” Drake said. “Those running backs are probably the best ones we’ve seen all year.”