GLADEWATER — It’s day three of preseason practice and the balmy East Texas heat is settling in.
Eligia Carter is in the process of going through a running drill against a skeleton defense. He takes the handoff and makes a cut to the left where he is absorbed by a pair of defenders. The ball comes free and is recovered by the defense. Seemingly undaunted, Carter heads back to the huddle repeats the play and this time slips effortlessly through a would-be tackle into the second level.
This time last year, few people had ever heard of Carter, save for the coaching staff at Gladewater and Carter’s classmates. He’d spent his freshman season of 2017 playing what amounted to a junior varsity schedule for the predominately freshman-laden Bears team.
It wasn’t until midway of that season Carter stepped out of the shadows of obscurity and into the light. Up to that point the freshman Carter was still finding his way and playing against primarily sophomores and even a few juniors.
“The big turnaround for him came in midseason that year. We were playing at Lindale and they had a really good defense,” recalls Bear head coach John Berry. “We were getting a play blocked the way wanted it blocked and he hit the seam three times, consecutively that went 70, one went 80, one went 70 yards. It was home runs and we knew that’s what we were looking for.”
Carter earned the start on varsity last year in the 2018 season opener against Spring Hill. He responded with an incredible 275-yard effort as the Bears blew out the Panthers, 61-30.
Carter went on to rack up three more 200-yard-plus performances in succession as Gladewater was well on its way to a deep playoff run. The soft-spoken, but hard-running Carter finished 2018 with a single-season school record 2,606 yards and 24 TDs.
“Eligia’s got talent. He’s a big-play back. He has real speed ... track speed. In our offense we’re gonna invest in what we do up front with our offensive line. We’re gonna have a fullback in front of him and have things designed to get people blocked and bodies on the folks around the line of scrimmage,” Berry explained. “What makes Eligia fit so well with what we do is he has that home run speed. It just comes down to that. He wasn’t that in the preseason because of vision things. But between him and coach (Curtis) Armstrong, that developed pretty fast. Faster than we thought. We knew he had that capability.”
History isn’t lost on Carter. The legion of outstanding running backs to don the black and orange is long and extensive. Carter would like nothing more than to leave as its most decorated.
“I’m just gonna try to do the best I can and if God says the same, hopefully I’ll do better than I did last year,” Carter said with clear humility. “My drive is to make it out of Gladewater for my mom, dad and my family. I was nervous at first (last year). But after a couple games, you kind of get used to it. And then I’m just going with the flow.”
College coaches, while unaware of Carter last fall, will soon be knocking on his door and filling up his inbox.
“There’s no question Eligia has it all right their in front of him. He’s got an opportunity to be special,” said Armstrong, who has coached his fair share of outstanding Bear ball carriers in two decades on staff. “He’s easy to coach and does whatever’s asked of him. There’s been a lot of good ones come through here and he has a chance to be as good as any of them.”
Carter will not be able to rely on that element of surprise this season. Opposing defensive coordinators will likely burn the midnight oil devising ways to keep the cagey Carter under wraps. Armstrong believes practicing every day against a stout run defense like Gladewater’s will only better prepare his prized pupil for Friday nights.
“He’s not gonna see any defense better prepared to stop the run than ours. I think that’s in his favor. We’re also looking for him to catch more passes out of the backfield this year,” said Armstrong.
Carter, according to Armstrong, has good hands and catches the ball well. It’s just his pass-catching skills weren’t needed a lot last year as proof of his 19 receptions.
“Once Eligia learned how to do the right things and just kept doing it, he got better as he went. Knock on wood, but what I’ve seen these first three days, he’s improved from that,” Berry said.
That serves as great news for the Gladewater Bears and bad news for their 2019 opponents.