PANTHER PROFILE: For younger backs in Panthers’ system, elder statesmen make all the difference
By Mike Schoeffel
Being a running back for the Liberty Hill varsity football team is a role unlike many other in the Austin-area high school football scene. It’s a bit like cutting a pie into, well, eight different pieces.
That’s how many players on the current roster have received at least one carry for the Panthers. Out of those nine, five — Hunter Oncken, Reid Sanders, Freddie White, Brandon Barfield, and Garrett Wright — have rushed at least 27 times.
For younger running backs still getting used to the system — like juniors Oncken and Ethan Thom, and sophomore Kyle Harrison — the endeavor can be an intimidating one. Thankfully for them, there are some elder statesman in the mix — namely, Sanders, Barfield, White, and Wright — who help ease the transition while simultaneously sustaining the tradition that helped the Panthers win state titles in 2006 and 2007.
“As a new back to the varsity squad, it can be challenging and a bit overwhelming because our success relies so much on the running game,” said Oncken. “Freddie [White] and the other backs have shared their experiences, shown support, and helped build the tight bond between us as teammates. When you step out on the field with this group of guys, you know that the potential for greatness is there.”
Oncken, who has rushed for 265 yards this season, recalls a challenge he faced during his first day as fullback. Oncken was unsure of what to do when the offense began running some plays he wasn’t familiar with. That’s when White, a senior who has rushed for 206 yards this season, stepped up.
“Freddie was keen enough to know that a few pointers might help,” said Oncken. “He ran through rules and roles for that play and how it applied to me. He was kind enough to think ahead to help prevent me from making a mistake. In a new role as running back, that meant so much to me to have his support and encouragement.”
Harrison, an underclassman with nine carries this season, said he’s felt the sense of camaraderie amongst the members of the backfield.
“We all definitely have each others backs,” he said, pun perhaps intended. “It’s all about the team and winning for everybody.”
The man pulling the strings for the entire ground operation is White, the starting quarterback.
Unlike most quarterbacks in the modern era, White, a senior, doesn’t throw often. He’s attempted only 25 passes all year. His role, instead, is that of a waiter — he hands out the pieces of the pie. His experience is especially helpful to the young bucks like Oncken, Harrison and the others.
“I view my role to the rest of the backfield sort of as a job foreman,” he said. “All of us have to work. I give the guys the cut of their money, but in reality we are all getting paid.”
Oncken, who receives a large cut of the money, considering he’s the leading rusher on the current roster, is proud of the sense of unity he feels with his running back brethren.
“The backs, as a whole, are like a small family,” said Oncken. “We’re a very close-knit group. We celebrate each other’s successes and help pick each other up when things may not go our way. It’s definitely a brotherhood that continues to develop.”
Indeed, and when young guys like Oncken, Harrison and Thom evolve into senior leaders themselves, they’ll be there to lead a whole new group of young backs anxious to carry on one of the most unique football traditions in Central Texas.