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With starting running back down, Thornton and Cooper carry load for Opelika in big win

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Opelika vs Central 9.9.22

Opelika’s Jakori Thornton (20) runs with the ball against Central on Friday in Opelika.

Before the big kick, Jakori Thornton and Kaden Cooper helped carry the load.

Stepping in the place of starting running back Calvin Hughley, who was down for injury, Thornton and Cooper both shined for Opelika during workman-like efforts in the Bulldogs’ 17-14 win over Central-Phenix City.

Both scored touchdowns. Thornton carried the ball 25 times for 73 yards, muscling through for tough yards between the tackles. Cooper was the more explosive of the duo, logging 11 carries and five receptions for 59 total yards from scrimmage.

Thornton was responsible for the first Bulldog touchdown, a five-yard run in the first quarter. Cooper caught a 16-yard receiving touchdown from quarterback Roman Gagliano in the third quarter.

“They’re dogs. They want to come out here and do whatever they can to help the team, really fight for us to win,” Gagliano said. “That’s what you saw tonight. Jakori, he’s been a dog forever. He got his time out there tonight, so I’m proud of him.”

The Opelika tandem earned their tough yards against a stingy Central defense. Central’s defense entered allowing just 9.3 points per game. Thornton averaged just under three yards per carry, with Cooper averaging just over three. Just three of their carries went for over 10 yards.

But Thornton and Cooper still helped push Opelika to the win.

“Kaden Cooper does everything for us and Jacori’s a kid that’s sat back and waited his time,” Speakman said. “He’s a senior, but he didn’t get to play much last year and he came out and never complained, just came out to work. Now you look and he’s our bell cow.”

Gagliano said Hughley was dressed out in practice on Monday and Tuesday, wearing his shoulder pads but mainly “getting rehab,” rather than practicing. The game plan was to practice for his absence and then it would just be even better if he could play.

“In the regular season, these games, it’s for seeding, so it’s not the end-all, be-all,” said Opelika head coach Eric Speakman on his running back’s absence. “If it was the playoffs, he would have played.”

Hughley’s issue was a sprained ankle injury lingering from last week, just bad enough to keep him off the field but nothing that will have implications on the remainder of his season. With matchups against Prattville and Theodore coming before a big game against Auburn High, health is of primary importance.

Opelika has not defeated Central since 2015, a tight 27-21 matchup that preceded six straight losses leading up to Friday’s victory. Now sitting at 4-0 on the season and 3-0 within their region, the Bulldogs now sit at the top with also-undefeated Auburn High.

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