Most schools have one running back that is the focal point for opposing defenses.
In Des Arc’s case, that number is three.
Heading into Friday’s 2A quarterfinal showdown against Junction City, the Eagles could have three players eclipse the 1,000-yard barrier this season.
Senior Jackson Morton has 1,294 yards and 19 touchdowns to lead the Eagles’ voracious running attack, which has generated 4,245 yards this season, good for an average of just under 386 yards per game.
C.J. Conway, also a senior, needs just 15 yards to reach 1,000 for the season. He has scored 13 touchdowns, and he has been explosive when he has carried the ball, averaging a whopping 15.4 yards per carry.
Senior Cooper Roberts rounds out the trio with 943 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he has been even more explosive than Conway, averaging an astonishing 16 yards per carry.
All three are critical components of the Eagles’ triple option attack, which averages 8 1/2 yards per carry, and was installed by first-year coach Tyler Paschal.
“Last year, they were more Wing-T. They were a ground-and-pound team. They’ll run downhill and get three or four yards,” Paschal said. “Now it will look the same when you look at it, but we run a lot more option, we run more midline. We’re reading more people in this offense. That’s the difference.
“We’re not just ground-and-pound, put a body on a body and blocking, we’re reading guys and we’re pitching. Our pass is a pitch. We don’t pass it, but we’re pitching the ball down the field. That’s why we have two guys with 900 yards rushing on the edge. They’re catching the ball down the field and taking off. It’s like a little pass. We’re able to run it sideline to sideline, which is big.”
Friday’s game is a rematch from the state quarterfinals from a year ago when Junction City advanced with a 55-13 win, and Dragons coach Brad Smith said trying to slow down the Eagles will be no easy task.
“They’ll run conventional stuff out of the same formation,” Smith said. “They’ll run traps and treys, and the read on option for a defensive tackle gets you killed on a trey. His guy goes inside and he squeezes down, well what he’s doing, the other guy is going inside for somebody else, and you get the big one on you and just widen the hole. Trap and trey with option really ought to be outlawed.
“What they did last year was that the option was window dressing. They ran power toss, and what we call packer, which is the old wedge. This year, they’re option, and the other stuff is a compliment to what they’re doing now. Option football just is what it is. What you’re deciding to do is not block two or three guys, and go block other guys. It’s just really hard. You get one guy out of place, it’s a big play. They’ve gotten guys out of place all year. On the films I have, it’s big play after big play.”
The Dragons saw some option a week ago in their 50-14 win over Hector, and Smith said some of the prep work will be the same.
“We have to do a lot of the same things,” Smith said. “Just play position football. I think we did pretty good with Hector, but Hector doesn’t have as good of people running it. Their quarterback isn’t an option guy like Des Arc’s is. Des Arc’s quarterback is an outstanding option quarterback. They’ve got better speed, and they do more things. If all they did was option, it would be pretty simple, but they do a lot of other things that keep you from just honing in on the option.
“We’ve seen some speed option out of a couple of teams, but nobody that sits down and plays the option. I’ve always said that if I ever had to go run an offense somewhere and I had some runners, I would get in the I-pro and spread as wide as I could, we would run option and make you enjoy it.”
In last year’s win over Des Arc, the Dragons gambled that the Eagles wouldn’t go to the option, and the move paid off.
“What we did last year was we cheated,” Smith said. “We cheated that they would not go to the option. We lined up in a front that gave the quarterback away, and they didn’t find it until we had 32 points on them. Then we had to go back and get out of convention out of what we were doing different, and it opened up.
“They’re not as big, and that’s why they’re running different stuff now, but they were frightening up front last year. I looked at it, I cheated and I said, ‘I hope to God they don’t run option right off the bat because then we’ll have to change.’ We played with five big ones. We didn’t play our wider kids against them until they found the option. When they found the option, we made our switch and lived with it. By that time, we got them where they were so far behind that they kind of had to abandon what they were doing.”
Des Arc’s triple option has been run masterfully by junior quarterback Luke Morton, who has rushed for 523 yards and scored 12 touchdowns.
The Eagles rarely throw the ball having attempted just 28 passes the entire season, but when Morton has had to throw, he has been efficient, completing 60 percent of his passes for 222 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
“I call him coach,” Paschal said of his quarterback. “He has a coach’s mind. He thinks like a coach. I call him coach probably every day. When I see him in the hall at school, I’m like, ‘Hey coach, are you ready for practice?’ He’s texted me on the weekends about what defense they’ll be in and we can do this and we can do that.
“That’s what really has excited me this whole season. If our quarterback is engaged like he is, and as smart as he is, then we have a chance to be successful running the option. He’s grown. He doesn’t look like a Year 1 option quarterback. He’s the guy that makes it go. He’s real smart. He can check stuff at the line. I trust him to do so.
“He’s just played really well this year. We make mistakes. We’re not perfect, but over this season from Game 1 until right now, he has showed so much improvement. Without Luke at quarterback, we wouldn’t be the same team that we are.”
Jackson Morton, Luke’s older brother, opened his season in rousing fashion by rushing for 294 yards and three touchdowns against England, the first of two games with 200-plus yards this year.
“He’s a fullback, and he had over 1,000 yards by Week 8 I believe,” Paschal said of Morton. “He’s tough. If you’re going to run this offense, you better have a tough fullback, and thankfully, we do. He never comes out of the game. He never wants out. He’s never hurt. Against England, I think we ran him 20 times in a row. He’s a stud. He was All-State last year. He has a chance to be All-State again this year.”
But it’s the balance between the trio that makes them so difficult to stop.
Last week against Mountainburg, Morton had 123 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, while Roberts racked up 127 yards and two scores on just five carries, good for an average of 25.4 yards per carry.
Incredibly, that marked the fourth time this year that Roberts has averaged over 23 yards per carry in a game this year.
For added measure, Conway had 81 yards and a touchdown on five carries. He also leads the team with five games of 100-plus yards this season, although Morton and Roberts are right behind him with four each.
“They all make it go,” Paschal said. “It’s hard to really just put a finger on one guy.”
Junior Eyan Holloway may not have the totals the others have with only 281 yards, but he leads the Eagles with five catches for 108 yards, and Paschal called him “the best blocker on the team.”
And while the Eagles have pounded teams with the ground game, the Dragons have been very balanced.
Senior quarterback Brady Hutcheson has thrown for 1,182 yards while completing nearly 58 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
Senior Harlandus Frazier and junior Devontay Gilbert have over 1,000 yards receiving combined with 15 touchdowns between them this year.
Senior Jakiron Cook has scored 21 touchdowns while averaging over nine yards per carry en route to racking up 1,154 yards this season.
However, the Dragons have also gotten solid contributions from sophomores A.J. Ivory, who has 579 yards and seven touchdowns, and Jamal Johnson, who has 524 yards rushing and receiving combined with six scores.
“We’ve played some good teams in this conference, but as far as being able to throw it at will, running it up the middle at will or run to the edge, this is the most balanced team that we’ve seen, and rightfully so,” Paschal said of the Dragons.
“Their record and with as many state championships as they’ve won in the past 10 years, it speaks for them.”
Paschal said his team has faced teams with good team speed, but contending with the Dragons’ team speed will be a tough task.
“Hazen is fast,” Paschal said. “They really are fast. When they get rolling downhill, that’s what’s scary, and we were able to make them run side to side. I think that’s why we were successful in that game. As a team, we were faster than Carlisle. We could get the edge. It showed that night.
“Earle is a really fast team as well, and Clarendon is a young team, but they have a lot of speed too. Now comparing all those teams to Junction, Junction is just faster. No knock on anybody that I mentioned, but Junction City is by far the fastest team that we’ll see this year.”
Des Arc played its first game of the year at War Memorial Stadium, a 38-20 win over England, and the Eagles now stand two wins away from making a return trip.
“That was one of the first things that I wrote down was, ‘Start at the Rock, end at the Rock,’” Paschal said. “We’ve said that a lot throughout this year. We started at the Rock and we won that game. One game at a time, that’s our mindset.
“But on the board and in my notes I have, ‘Start at the Rock, end at the Rock.’ I’ll hear kids say it every now and then. It’s on their mind, which is a good thing.
“We’re not looking ahead. We haven’t looked ahead all year, but it is symbolic. We were able to play our first game, and my first game as a head coach at War Memorial. We would all love to end up playing for a state championship at War Memorial.”