Panthers look to replace star back
By Scott Akanewich
Last season, Kyle Harrison ran wild over opposing defenses to the tune of 2,872 yards and 40 touchdowns while fellow senior ballcarrier Shane Gonzales added another 1,103 out of the Liberty Hill backfield.
But, the Panthers running game wasn’t restricted to only those two.
In fact, the Purple and Gold set a new all-conferences, Texas state record with 7,417 yards rushing. Do the math and that’s a robust 494.5 yards per game.
A lot of offense to replace for Panthers head Coach Jeff Walker, as he readies his squad for the upcoming season with one eye on returning to the Class 4A championship game.
So, this season a lot more of the offensive burden will fall on the shoulders of senior quarterback Jacob Cearley, who ran for 737 yards last fall with a second-best 18 touchdowns along with new No. 1 running back Blake Simpson, who piled up 662 yards and eight scores.
No worries, said Walker.
“The offense we run is a proven system,” he said. “You plug in young men who are willing to work.”
For Walker, it’s all about the speed at which his offense runs, which makes all the difference.
“We want to always play like our hair’s on fire,” he said. “We preach we need all 11 guys to be at full speed.”
Cearley is certainly ready for the challenge.
“I don’t feel pressure, but I know I have to step up,” he said. “Our goal is to score every time we have the ball.”
The Panthers’ signal-caller realizes in order for the offense to operate at peak efficiency, everything must run smoothly with no room for error.
“Every single day in practice, we run every play we have, so during games it comes natural,” said Cearley. “As for me, I just do what I’m supposed to do.”
Much like Cearley stepped up last season starting for the first time, so Simpson will be required to do the same this year as a junior, but it’s something he believes he’s ready for.
“I’ve just worked really hard and not missed any reps in practice,” said Simpson. “I want to challenge Kyle’s records.”
Walker knows he has lightning in a bottle with Simpson, or perhaps thunder, he said.
“I get nervous talking about this young man because he’s got so much potential and I don’t want to put any extra pressure on him,” said Walker. “We call him ‘Crazy Legs’ because he’s all over the place with his running style.”
Never was Simpson’s ability more on display than in last season’s Class 4A state semifinal – a 44-41 victory against Carthage in which he outran Harrison 192-154 and matched his teammate’s two touchdowns.
“He hurdled a tackler in that game and took it to the house,” said Walker. “When he’s in the open field, not too many people can catch him.”
But, the offense will revolve around Cearley and his ability to make plays, said Walker.
“When the ball is in Jacob’s hands, good things happen,” he said. “With him being a senior and knowing the offense so well having played it since he was in seventh grade, we have to take advantage of it.”
So, with an entire season of experience as a starter under his belt, Cearley will be expected to take his game to a whole new level.
But, he’s ready.
“I feel a lot more confident this season,” said Cearley. “Being starting quarterback at Liberty Hill is a big responsibility and our goal is always to make it to the state championship game.”
Which, of course is played at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, which is an experience that resonates with Cearley from last season.
“Playing there isn’t like a high-school game,” said Cearley. “You feel like you’re in a video game like ‘Madden’ or something – it was awesome.”
Whether or not the Panthers can once again reach the lofty heights they ascended to last season remains to be seen and Walker said he will believe it when he sees it.
“We’re extremely inexperienced,” said Walker. “We have a lot of potential, but that doesn’t mean anything until you do it. Right now, we have a lot of big guys who are in JV mode who aren’t ready for the speed we want to play with yet. We want our linemen to get into the fat guys before they can stand up.”
However, in order to play at such a frenetic pace, players must be in top shape, which is where conditioning comes into play.
Only it’s madness with a method, said Walker.
“We never run sprints during practice,” he said. “We want our players to be able to practice at a fast pace. But, we’ll run gassers after a scrimmage.”
Liberty Hill’s offense is so prolific, many schools shy away from facing the Panthers, said Walker.
“We can’t get teams out of district to play us,” he said. “It’s very hard to stop our offense if you only have three days to get ready.”
But, as potent as the Panthers’ Slot-T offense is, Walker is always looking for more ways to carve open opposing defenses, he said.
“Jacob throws the ball really well and we have some guys who can catch it, so we might just open it up a little more this season. Does that mean we’re going to throw 15 times a game? Probably not.”
Cearley completed 17 passes all last season, so the ball will probably remain on the ground and in the capable hands of an entire stable of talented runners.
If you can see them.
“We want to be a purple blur,” said Walker. “We need to hit our holes fast, our blocks fast, everything fast and have plenty of misdirection. If we have guys who don’t have the ball getting tackled, I know we’re doing it right.”
Walker said there’s only one objective for the new campaign.
“You never start a season without the goal of winning a state championship,” he said. “So, we set our goals high and go out and practice every day to beat the best in the state. If you believe it, you can achieve it. I don’t worry about the scoreboard. If we put the proper energy and effort into it, the rest will take care of itself.”