Kraegenbrink, Johnson form dynamic backfield duo for Lafayette

Lafayette is considered the most blue-collar of Bay Rivers District football programs, but its go-to tailbacks, Caleb Kraegenbrink and Kyle Johnson, entered the season with white-collar reputations.

Kraegenbrink was known primarily as a slasher and Johnson for his speed. Those attributes still apply, but they've increased their repertoires significantly in helping the Rams (11-0), who were unbeaten entering Friday's Group 4A East Region/Conferences 17-18 second-round playoff matchup against Grafton (9-2). The added versatility made them, by far, the district's most lethal 1-2 rushing combination and major contributors to a defense that's also best in the district.

Kraegenbrink, a 5-foot-10, 191-pound senior with 16 touchdowns, led the district in rushing yards with 1,418, while Johnson, a 5-7, 160-pound senior with 1,104 yards, leads the BRD with 20 rushing touchdowns.

Their explosiveness doesn't make wide receiver and all-around star Hezekiah Grimsley an afterthought as much as a very big bonus.

Like Grimsley, Kraegenbrink and Johnson have emerged as huge contributors in the secondary for a defense whose starters have allowed fewer than 10 points per game.

"Caleb has always had skills, but he's gotten stronger and a little bigger this season," Rams coach Andy Linn said. "He's not the most physical defensive back, but he doesn't make mistakes, is always in the right place, and he can make a hard hit when he needs to.

"Kyle is fast, but he's a tough kid who wants to do anything he can to help this football team."

Playing behind a number of stars in the past three years, Johnson had to wait his turn to contribute to the Rams' backfield.

"I watched the way Kajoun (Johnson) could see things on the field and how he kept pushing himself," Johnson said. "And I watched my cousin (Jahlil Green), which helped me visualize the field more over the years."

Johnson credits the lessons learned for his season in which he has rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Johnson says it's a milestone he never thought much about, but is happy to reach because it highlighted his improvement as a runner.

"My speed was always the same, but my cuts are way better and I'm way better getting through the hole," Johnson said.

That studious approach has served him at cornerback. Beaten by a receiver early in the Rams' 54-14 win over Denbigh in the first round of the playoffs, he says film study helped him jump a route on the receiver later in the game and get his first interception.

Johnson says his biggest moment this season is a 74-yard touchdown run in a 21-13 win at Smithfield. The Rams were struggling offensively in a 7-7 tie before Johnson's burst swung the momentum their way.

"It felt good to be the spark, but the best thing was that it was a tough game and it showed we could stick together as a family and pull out the win," Johnson said.

The Smithfield game was also a turning point for Kraegenbrink. It wasn't his biggest statistically, as he ran for a little more than 100 yards and a touchdown, but his 25 carries helped the Rams milk the clock and keep the ball away from the Packers' explosive skill players.

"He showed a more physical side that night than in the past and gave us the ball control we had to have," Linn said.

Kraegenbrink says the physicality he displayed on a long run in a hard-fought 28-15 win over Poquoson was his favorite offensive moment of the year.

"I had been hearing all week how (Poquoson linebacker) Colten Hicks was going to lay the wood on me," Kraegenbrink said. "He's a heck of a player and I respect him, but I was able to bust up the middle and break his tackle, then make a cut that sent another defender sliding five yards past me.

"They played us tough, but that play changed the game."

Much of the leadership Kraegenbrink displays is vocal. He is the player who pulled aside his fellow seniors, a group that calls themselves "The Savage 17," and spoke of the importance of getting a fourth consecutive unbeaten regular season.

"I didn't want to be part of the senior class to break the streak," Kraegenbrink said. "To go 40-0 is crazy, something we can brag about for years to come. None of my friends or my brother who played the years before this were able to do that. I always try to keep the confidence of my teammates up, because when they're confident, they play like savage dogs.

"I know everybody has something in them they don't even know they're capable of doing. I try to build their belief."

Colleges are taking notice, with Division I Army one of the most persistent in pursuing him. Kraegenbrink likes Army but is hoping to draw more attention from William and Mary and Richmond.

Should the Rams reach the 4A state final in December, he will get the opportunity to showcase his skills on the Tribe's home field at Zable Stadium.

"I always keep in mind that you have to play every playoff game like it's your last, because it could be," he said. "We're going to lay it all on the line and pray for the best."

O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.

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