RED OAK — Each time CJ Palmer touched the football Friday night against Athens, the Red Oak Hawks were, theoretically, one-yard from a first down.
The sophomore running back averaged 9.1 yards-per-carry during the 28-20 win at Billy Goodloe Stadium, finishing with 236 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries.
"CJ runs the ball well, and he is a strong kid. You cannot arm tackle him, and that is the big thing," said Red Oak head football coach Brian Brown after watching the game film Saturday morning. "We have really leaned on him a bunch early with a lot of that being to get him in shape for district. I've been impressed with his mentality on the field."
Brown added the coaching staff has worked with Palmer almost as much to hone his mental game as they have the physical. Being just a sophomore, Palmer had to learn that sometimes a couple two-yard runs are just as important as ripping a big gain.
"We talked about it early on, and we talked about it after the first week and he has really caught on. He knows now that we can always evaluate things at the end of the game and we don't need to evaluate after every play, you just have to get back in the huddle and go again."
After nine carries for 33 yards in the season-opening loss to Corsicana, Palmer has exploded out of the Hawk backfield for 384 yards on 49 carries over the last two games. He has also scored six touchdowns — three in each contest — during the span.
The Hawks did not have a 100-yard rusher in 2016 until Dee Johnson crossed the century mark in week 10 against Midlothian.
Brown said Palmer was a "couple of blocks" away from running for over 300 yards in Friday night's win.
The Hawks jumped out to a 21-7 lead before eventually extending the advantage to 28-14 early in the second half against the Hornets.
A couple of dropped passes and unlucky bounces late in the third quarter cooled the momentum of the (2-1) Red Oak offense, though. One of the dropped passes should have resulted in a second touchdown for quarterback Carson Forbes who finished the evening with 60 yards on 3-of-6 passing. The senior had one touchdown and one interception for an 85.4 quarterback-rating.
"A win is a win. We did not play especially great in the second half and I thought Athens played hard and they had some good players, their quarterback was really good," Brown said. "You are always proud of a win. Last night after the game I saw some of our players looking down or whatever and told them that they need to be sure to celebrate the win because it is going to be tougher in district. We just have to start playing better in the second half and we really haven't had a good second half the season, so that is our goal."
Red Oak will now turn to the daunting District 10-5A schedule. The Hawks, who finished 1-6 in district play last season, start the 2017 campaign on the road against (1-2) Mansfield Timberview.
The Wolves, traditionally built on a strong defensive front seven, won their first game of the season against Everman (44-8) before falling to Frisco Lone Star (45-21) and Highland Park (34-32).
"They do a good job on the defense of side of the ball, much like Lancaster does, and their offense is better this year," Brown said. "You really have to get a hat and pop those guys and I know that sounds cliché-ish but that really is the case. They are very well coached, and even though we have played them pretty well the last two years, they tend to give us fits with the things we do.
"We have to come out and execute. You cannot have turnovers against them, and you cannot have plays that go backward or penalties, and that goes for any of the teams in our district. We know it is going to be a tough game. We just have to come out and play."
Red Oak lost at home to Timberview 30-7 last season. Kickoff at Vernon Newsom Stadium is slated for 7:30 p.m.