As the Carrollton High School football team shuffled through spring practice in late April into early May, it did so minus two huge components — both literally and figuratively — who will anchor each side of the line in 2018.
With senior center Ty Murray riding a run to the elite eight with the Trojan baseball team and senior defensive tackle R.J. Russell completing his therapy from an ACL tear dating back to Game 1 of the 2017 campaign, third-year Carrollton head coach Sean Calhoun was able to get other guys reps in the trenches to help build depth for the fall.
But it's no secret as to who the alpha dogs are up front, and now they're both back on the field with a bite to back up the bark.
Murray is gearing up for his fourth season starting on the O-line, while Russell is working to return to top form after months of agonizing therapy during his recovery from the knee injury.
Calhoun noted how having a healthy Russell on board not only serves as a tremendous boost of energy for the defensive line, but the entire team.
"It was devastating to lose him and more devastating for him as an individual and as a football player because your junior year is an important year, film-wise, for colleges. But the greatest thing about R.J. is he didn't let it discourage him," Calhoun said. "He was at every football thing, he was at every game. He turned into a great teammate. He already was a really good one, and you never know why the good Lord puts us through trials and storms. I think this made him appreciate football and become a really good teammate and a good leader. But seeing him back being able to work out and move and run, he's a really good football player. More important, he's an even greater person and it's just awesome having him back around. Just a great kid, great personality."
Russell, who was cleared to resume football activities two weeks ago, said not being able to line up next to his teammates on Friday nights last fall proved more painful than the injury itself.
"It was terrible. I hate seeing the team playing and I couldn't be out there with them. But I just had to lead from the sidelines," Russell said.
Although therapy and the recovery process wasn't a whole lot of fun, Russell said his knee "feels good as new now."
And now it's a matter of working himself back into football shape and becoming a menace for opposing O-lines to attempt to block once again.
Calhoun hasn't set a definitive return date for Russell to go full-tilt just yet, other than the most important day on the 2018 calendar at the moment and a date with East Coweta.
"Whether you work on a bike or a treadmill or just any kind of machine to get your cardio up when you have a knee injury, it's still not the same as getting out there and running," Calhoun said. "His conditioning will take some time, but by the time the first game rolls around, that's our mindset. If he's good to go for our scrimmage against Bremen, he'll go. He hasn't played in a game since Game 1 of last year. But if he's not ready, we've got to get him ready for August 24th."
Getting Murray back into football form wasn't as trivial upon shifting gears from the diamond to gridiron.
Calhoun said given his experience and versatility in being able to play every position on the line makes the transition much smoother in taking ownership of that unit this summer.
"It's a great thing that Ty didn't go through spring practice because our baseball team is making a deep run, which is awesome. Ty basically played and almost started as a ninth-grader. So he'll be a four-year starter," Calhoun said. "You're talking this state and this region and this classification and this school, there's not a whole lot of people that do that and then do it on the offensive line."
The O-line lost two Division I talents to graduation in Cole Williamson (Murray State) and Khalil Crowder (Georgia Southern), but it returns three starters with Murray, Kayliek Dunson and Johnathan Mason back in the fold, while Micah Moten played plenty of snaps at tight end last season. Calhoun is also encouraged by the development of sophomores Daniel Dukes and Lyndon Cooper, among others, competing for O-line coach Chad Blevins.
With some new faces joining the fray up front, Murray said it makes all the work they put in this summer even more valuable when it comes to chemistry.
"I'm really trying to learn how they work and what I need to do to help them out," Murray said. "If they need help, I'm trying to build their trust to where they can ask me anytime they need anything."
The defensive line will also have some new players landing leading roles this fall with Robert Johnson, Malachi Moten, Amir Williams and Jalen Cooper teaming back up with Russell, while a handful of others are right behind them to build as much depth as possible for that unit under the direction of D-line coaches Michael Hilbert and Fred Ricks.
"We have a bunch of kids that we feel like we can play with and we can move in and out. That's a position where you're going to use as many as you have and keep them fresh," Calhoun said.
Russell feels it's imperative for the linemen to set the tone defensively for the Trojans to be successful this fall.
"We have to be the teeth of the defense. We're looking good. Everybody is really looking good," Russell said. "I think we're going to be one of the best defenses in AAAAA."
Both Russell and Murray expect to suit up on Saturdays following their prep careers, even though Russell's recruiting took a bit of a hit due to the injury last year. Calhoun looks for it to pick back up as long as he remains healthy and produces like he was prior to the injury.
"He has good enough freshman and sophomore film to be on a lot of recruiting boards at a lot of schools. He does have a lot of interest," Calhoun said. "He'd have 10 to 12 offers if he hadn't had gotten hurt. But, again, whether you get it your sophomore year or your junior year or your senior year, it doesn't matter if you're still getting an offer. It's an unbelievable blessing. His are going to come."
Murray, meanwhile, has been extremely busy with recruiting visits and coaches contacting him over the past year. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound lineman has narrowed his top two choices to Louisville and Virginia, but that hasn't stopped other schools from seeking his services.
"Recruiting is crazy. I've got about 25 colleges texting me almost every day. That's real nice, but it's also real stressful. I'm just trying to keep that out of my head while I'm getting prepared for the season," said Murray, who added that he will likely make an announcement at some point during the season and potentially on Senior Night.
Of course, there's plenty of work to be done for the Black and Gold before either player gets too concerned with college.
Carrollton wrapped up its work for the month of June on Thursday and will get a much-needed break with the GHSA-mandated 'dead week' on tap. Because after that, the 2018 season will be right around the corner.
"When we get back, we've got to go full on out," Russell said. "Now it's the real deal."
And with this marking the final opportunity to represent their hometown team, the two leaders of the Trojan line aim to leave everything they've got on the field this fall.
"It's real special. I've been here for four years now and I've seen three classes go and I never thought it would be this fast," Murray said. "It's all been in the blink of an eye."