BLOOMINGTON — When Kendrick Cooley was in junior high, he would attend Bloomington High School football games and keep his eyes trained on the Purple Raiders’ backfield.
Later that night, or maybe the next day, he would close the same eyes and imagine taking the handoffs and breaking into the clear.
He doesn’t have to imagine anymore.
The 5-foot-9, 165-pound junior has been BHS’ primary ballcarrier the past two weeks because of an injury to senior Emerson Evans. He has responded much like the guy he used to watch at Fred Carlton Field.
Cooley rushed for 319 yards and two long touchdowns in last week’s 42-27 win at Champaign Centennial. A week earlier, he had 89 yards and two scores against Chicago St. Patrick after Evans injured an ankle.
“I remember coming to games when I was younger and watching Darrelynn Dunn,” Cooley said of the current Illinois State senior standout. “It’s kind of exciting to be able to step into that role.
“I hate that Emerson had to get injured for me to have the opportunity, but I hope we can do the same thing as a group when he comes back.”
Evans is practicing this week and could be ready for tonight’s homecoming game against Normal Community West. His return would give Coach Rigo Schmelzer options, including having the two in the backfield together or at times using Evans at receiver. Adam Swords and Kyonn Keith also can bring speed to the backfield.
“It’s a nice luxury to have,” Schmelzer said. “We feel like we have the quicks covered. Now it’s the ability to run and catch the ball out of the backfield and block when they need to.
“Emerson does all of those things well. Cooley’s strength is more top-end speed and the ability to hit a hole and find space.”
Cooley raced for 65- and 58-yard touchdowns against Centennial. He attributes them to the blocking up front and the offseason work he put in.
Cooley spent time in the weight room, but also attended a speed camp.
“I feel like I’m a lot faster and it fixed my form,” he said. “Now if I get to the open field, it allows me to break away.
“I like me and Emerson together because he’s more of a power back and I’m more hit-the-hole and go.”
Cooley also plays on special teams and rotates into the secondary on passing downs.
Last year, he played mostly on defense and special teams, but also part-time on offense. He was versatile enough to be named the Raiders’ most valuable player.
Earning the honor as a sophomore could lead some players to rest on what they accomplished.
“Like Coach Schmelzer says, if you’re not getting better you’re getting worse,” he said. “I’m always trying to improve on things. I’ve been trying to put in the work so I would be ready to go (at tailback).”
With 519 yards in 40 attempts, Cooley has a 13-yard average per carry. Consider him ready and able.