Panthers keep running despite decimated backfield
By Keith Sparks
Since the first game of the season, the Panthers have seen their starting fullback, second-string fullback, and starting running back fall to various injuries, including a torn ACL for fullback Jakob Schofield, shoulder surgery for fullback Reid Sanders, and knee issues for running back Shane Gonzalez.
Head Coach Jeff Walker has experimented with a few different players in the backfield after his starters suffered the aforementioned injuries, eventually deciding to go with Nash Robinson at fullback and Blake Simpson at running back beside the only healthy starter in Kyle Harrison.
Thankfully for the Panthers, their offensive line has performed to the highest of standards, making it easy for Walker to plug and play different running backs depending upon the scenario, whether they have experience at the position or not.
“We’re only going to be as good as our offensive line,” Walker said. “I tell people all the time that even I can run through a big hole. We’re only going to be as good as our offensive line this year. I thought, coming in, that the strength of our offense was going to be our offensive line, and they haven’t disappointed. They’ve been doing what we expect them to do. We’ve plugged in different backs every game this year and they’ve all had some success, so I think it’s really the offensive line that deserves a lot of credit.”
In his first game as a starter, Simpson finished with a whopping 248 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, averaging more than 15 yards per carry. Robinson’s first start wasn’t too shabby either, as he finished with 146 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries, averaging more than 13 yards per carry.
Although Walker was surprised at the extent of how well they did in their first starts, he wasn’t at all surprised that they found success, considering what he’s seen in practice and toward the end of games in their limited action prior to starting.
“I was a little surprised that they did as well as they did,” Walker said. “Not a lot, though, because they work hard in practice and have the ability. I just haven’t seen them on a Friday night, even though they’ve come in and done some mop-up duties, they haven’t started a game on Friday night, so you just really never know – when somebody’s starting their first Friday night game – what you’re going to get from them. I thought they responded well and competed hard, did a good job.”
Standing at 6’2”, Simpson is significantly taller than most running backs at the high school level, making him an easier target for tacklers in the scrum, but Walker said his toughness makes him hard to bring down.
“They’re both pretty tough kids, which helps,” Walker said. “Simpson’s got to be tough, because when you run so straight up and down at 6’2”, they can take shots everywhere. We call him ‘crazy legs’ because he’s going every which direction, but pretty tough kid that runs real hard. We get him running with shoulder pads, there’s no telling what he can do. He’s pretty quick, pretty fast kid and has a very big upside to him at 6’2”.”
Considering his height, Simpson knows it’s important to keep his shoulder pads low, which he’s working on, in addition to putting a focus on finding and hitting holes in the defensive line while he also improves his conditioning and learns the offense in greater detail.
“Just getting in better shape and learning all the plays,” Simpson said of what he wants to improve. “Keeping my eyes open and looking for holes all the time instead of just trying to run straight.”
Robinson, on the other hand, is a different type of runner entirely, relying on his quickness and elusiveness to sneak past defenders. Walker said his limited stature allows him to hide behind his linemen, forcing defenders to guess who has the ball.
“Nash just fits in that fullback spot because he’s kind sneaky quick and gets kind hidden in the mix, keeps his feet moving real well,” Walker said. “I think it was his first carry Friday night, he got hit right in the hole, and I don’t know if the guy didn’t know he had the ball or if the guy just couldn’t tackle him, because Nash isn’t a very big kid, and he hit him and let go and Nash went 60-something yards for a touchdown. He kind of gets lost in there.”
According to Robinson, it’s been somewhat of an adjustment getting used to the starting role, primarily the fact that he’s required to show more focus during practice now that he’s with the first-team offense week-in and week-out.
“Having to work harder and focus more in practice,” Robinson said. “I used to be able to joke around a little, but now I’m having to compete with the other senior running back, Kyle Harrison.”
Walker said he’s noticed a competitive fire from Robinson in practice, as well, who has told him on multiple occasions that he believes he’s capable of starting.
“He’s pretty competitive and has been wanting to play that spot,” Walker said. “He’s been telling me he can do it since day one, and he finally earned his chance. He didn’t disappoint.”
Considering Robinson and Simpson were able to score three touchdowns and run for close to 400 yards between the two of them, it’s safe to say the offense is in good hands. For both Robinson and Simpson, Friday’s performance showed that they have the potential to “do something special,” despite the injuries.
“It shows that we’ll be able to go far, honestly,” Robinson said.
“I think it says that we can do something special further down the road,” Simpson said.
At this point, Simpson said he and Robinson are simply trying to “get in the groove” with more and more experience. If Friday’s performance wasn’t already considered the groove, the rest of the district is in trouble.