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'It gave us closure': Citadel QB ready for new season after friend's death

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Citadel quarterback Brandon Rainey led the Bulldogs to three wins in their last four games in 2018.

Brandon Rainey knelt in prayer in the end zone on a November night last season, his usual No. 16 Citadel football jersey replaced by No. 82.

"I thought about wearing his number again this year," the Bulldogs' junior quarterback said recently. "But I got that moment with him, and that's all I really needed."

Rainey's moment came on the night of Nov. 29, 2018, after he scored the first touchdown in the Bulldogs' 43-14 win over Charleston Southern. He was wearing No. 82 in honor of a friend and former high school teammate who died earlier that day.

Vanderbilt tight end Turner Cockrell, who played with Rainey and Citadel receiver Raleigh Webb at Allatoona High School in Georgia, was just 21 when he died after a months-long bout with melanoma.

Rainey also threw a TD pass that special night, and Webb returned a kickoff 77 yards for a touchdown.

"I knew Turner was looking over us during the game," Rainey said afterwards.

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Citadel quarterback Brandon Rainey prays after scoring a touchdown against Charleston Southern last season. Rainey wore No. 82 in honor of his former high school teammate and close friend, Vanderbilt's Turner Cockrell, who died earlier in the day after a year-long battle with cancer.

Closure of a sort came a few days later when Rainey was able to attend his friend's funeral back home in Acworth, Ga., where their Allatoona team won a state title in 2015.

"I got to go home and talk to a lot of our buddies at the funeral," Rainey said. "To lose a friend that close — honestly, he was at our house 24/7 when I was growing up. We shared some stories, like about a hole in my wall at home that had to be replaced.

"It gave us closure, but we're still dealing with it."

'Natural-born leader'

Cockrell's death is just one of the changes Rainey has gone through since he reported to The Citadel three years ago.

He came to the Charleston military school as a quarterback, but injuries forced the 6-foot, 205-pounder to move to fullback in 2017. He ran for 505 yards and two touchdowns that season, then switched back to QB for the 2018 season.

"That season made me appreciate everything the fullback and linemen do in our offense," Rainey said. "Blocking, that was terrible, and I wasn't very good at it. But it made me learn the whole inside blocking scheme so much better, and it made me appreciate everything the fullbacks and linemen do."

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The Citadel's Brandon Rainey (left) came to the Bulldogs as a quarterback, but played fullback in 2017. 

Rainey was the backup QB and did not play in the first seven games of the 2018 season, watching from the sideline as the Bulldogs lost five of their first seven. He emerged as the starter in the eighth game against Western Carolina, rushing for 188 yards and a TD in a 38-24 victory.

He backed that up the next week with 217 yards and a TD in a 42-27 win over Samford, two of the top five rushing performances by a QB in Citadel history.

Leading the Bulldogs to a 3-1 record in their final four games, Rainey rushed for 539 yards and three TDs and passed for two more scores, giving the program a sense of momentum despite a second straight 5-6 season.

"He's a natural-born leader," Citadel slotback Dante Smith said of Rainey. "Along the sidelines, he pumps everybody up — even against Samford, when were down by 21 and came back to win.

"He lifts everybody up and urges you to keep on going, no matter what the situation is."

'Keeps you hungry'

Rainey's situation for much of this summer in Charleston involved hauling armoires and sofas up and down stairs while working for a moving company.

"A lot of people don't empty out their desks," he said. "So if people read this, empty out your desks."

Rainey's metaphorical desk is filled with new assignments this season as he moves from backup QB to acknowledged team leader in the space of a year.

"I don't really make a big deal of starting," he said. "Because if I don't do my job, someone will take it. So each day you are fighting for your spot, and that's how it should be."

Though the Bulldogs finished 3-1 in games started by Rainey last season — including a 10-10 halftime tie in a 50-17 loss to No. 1 Alabama — he discounts any talk of a "Rainey Effect."

"Honestly, everything was there already," he said. "We just needed that one little push. I don't know if I made a difference or not, but I just hope we can keep it rolling."

Rainey pointed to a fumble he lost at his own 29-yard line on the second play of the second half against Samford, with The Citadel already behind by 24-7.

"I'm thinking, 'I just blew this game,' " he said. "But the defense bowed their neck and didn't give up any points after that, and that was huge."

On the next drive, Rainey sprinted 43 yards to set up a touchdown, and The Citadel's comeback for a 42-27 victory was underway.

Moments like that make Rainey and the Bulldogs confident they can outperform expectations in the Southern Conference this season.

"Going to a place like The Citadel, it keeps you hungry," he said. "And it's the same for our team. We're picked seventh, and if that doesn't keep you hungry, I don't know what will.

"Each day, with everything we go through, it makes you want to make it worth it."

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC

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