ELIZABETHTON — When the season started, Caleb Bailey was not expected to be Elizabethton’s quarterback.
As the Cyclones head into Friday’s Class 3A state semifinal game against Christian Academy of Knoxville, Bailey is an integral part of the team’s offensive attack.
“He has a lot of heart and guts,” said Cyclones’ head coach Shawn Witten. “And he has improved daily and weekly.”
Bailey played quarterback on the freshman and junior-varsity teams two years ago. As a sophomore, it appeared his future was at defensive back.
However, an injury to projected starter Caleb Armstrong opened the door for a quarterback competition. When the Cyclones played Daniel Boone in Week Zero, senior D.J. Arnett took all of the snaps.
Bailey was asked to play quarterback in the junior-varsity game the following Monday. He suffered a leg injury in the game, but returned to practice Wednesday. On Thursday, Witten called the first offense to the field and told the 5-10, 160-pound junior to get in there.
“I said, ‘OK, wide receiver?’ and he said, ‘No, quarterback,’ ” said Bailey. “Going into the Science Hill game, I didn’t feel like I had much to lose. I thought I would play the next couple of games until Armstrong was cleared.”
However, Bailey never let go of the reins, and Witten decided he was the best fit for this team.
“We knew going in we needed a guy who could manage the offense,” said Witten. “He did what we asked him to do, managed the game, and didn’t try to force throws.”
By midseason, the gig was clearly Bailey’s to keep. But instead of relaxing, he started getting better. And over the last few weeks, he’s become another weapon for the Cyclones.
“Once I figured out I was the starting quarterback, I knew I had to step up what I was doing,” said Bailey. “I started playing more disciplined, and that helped me a lot. I had to take control, be a leader, and make sure there were no mistakes.
“Being a quarterback is not about making big plays. It’s about not making mistakes. If two teams are evenly matched across the board, the team that makes the fewest mistakes will usually win.”
Bailey really stepped up in last week’s 41-38 overtime win over Sullivan North. He made a nice throw to Markus Olds for a big third-down conversion in the second quarter. Later he hit Zach Moore for a nine-yard gain in the two-minute drill. Both drives ended in Elizabethton touchdowns.
Then in overtime, Bailey muscled his way into the end zone for the game-winning score with a quarterback sneak from one yard out.
“He has gotten some experience, and he has worked hard week to week on his passing,” said Witten. “He has done a great job with his decision making.”
During the games, Witten has Bailey run to him on the sideline for just about every play call. It seems like a tiring routine, but Bailey said it’s not that bad — and Witten has made one adjustment to it.
“If I run the ball to the opposite sideline, he gives me a break and sends someone in with the play,” said Bailey. “I did this on JV my freshman year, so I’m pretty accustomed to it.”
On the season, Bailey has completed 57 percent of his passes (41 of 72) for 521 yards. He has four touchdown tosses and three interceptions. On the ground he has gained 441 yards on 89 carries for an average of five per attempt.
Bailey said he credits his older brother Mark Bailey II for his success.
“He instilled competitiveness in me as a kid,” said Bailey. “We always played tackle football in the back yard. I will probably have back problems when I’m 50 years old because of it. But it was worth it. He drove me to succeed.”
Bailey said the Cyclones will carry plenty of confidence into Friday’s game.
“We’ve won 11 straight games, so it’s hard to remember the last time we lost,” said Bailey. “You feel like there’s no way someone can beat you. We’re not cocky. We’re just very confident.
“Our offensive and defensive lines have carried us for 11 games straight.”
Of course, the state semifinals is a big stage.
“We’ve got to make sure we keep our composure,” said Bailey. “If you think too much, you might get nervous.
“But we have to know at this point, we don’t get second chances. This is a big game. We can’t come back next week if we lose and fix it.”