Panthers seek to dominate with running back-by-committee approach
By Keith Sparks
NFL teams have almost gotten rid of the fullback position completely, instead relying more heavily on one or two generic running backs that fill similar roles. In Liberty Hill, however, the traditional running back positions are alive and well.
The Panthers are one of the few teams that still have a halfback, fullback and tailback in their traditional sense, although injuries and skill sets have forced them to blur the lines between the positions a bit. There’s a method to Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker’s madness, though, who said he uses all three running backs to attack different points of an opposing defense.
“We try to be able to attack everywhere on the defense, so we want to be able to run inside, outside, both sides, be able to throw the ball to them and those kinds of things,” Walker said.
Traditionally, fullbacks are the biggest guys in the backfield, specializing in short yardage situations where they’re forced to absorb contact and run right up the middle of the defense. Halfbacks are typically the most important blockers in the backfield and tailbacks are known for their speed and maneuverability.
Over his years of coaching the Slot-T offense, however, Walker has realized that simply having your three best running backs in the backfield is more important than finding players that fit the traditional molds of the three different running back positions. If the offensive line executes the way it’s supposed to, the positions don’t matter as much.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’ve had so many different kinds of backs, it doesn’t really matter if you have a big one or a small one, you just try to get the best three you can find that will run hard and carry out their fakes and all that,” Walker said. “Our offense goes with our offensive line. If you can put a good offensive line out there, the backs aren’t as important.”
It’s not often that teams have multiple players rush for more than 1,000 yards, but the Panthers often have two of them. Unfortunately, this year’s starting fullback, Jacob Schofield, who could have been one of them, tore his ACL late during Friday’s win over Leander Glenn.
According to Kyle Harrison, Kuykendall has already switched positions multiple times and has been successful at each of them. He doesn’t expect this week’s transition to be any different.
“Kuykendall is good at every position he’s been at,” Harrison said. “He’s been at, like, four different positions and he’s done great every time. It’s crazy. He’s never run the ball before and I’m not even worried about it. He can do anything Coach tells him to and he’ll do it hard, so I’m excited and I’m not worried about it.”
While Shane Gonzalez and Harrison share similar responsibilities in the backfield as halfback and tailback, the fullback position is the most unique of the bunch. Schofield played halfback last season, but switched to fullback for this season, so his responsibilities that now fall upon Kuykendall are quite different from the other two backs.
“Now it’s less fakes and more on the line, blocking, and more running up the middle, obviously,” Schofield said. “There’s a lot of deception with fakes, but now I’m more of the shorter yardage guy that just powers through the middle. Kyle, he can get some good breakaways and Shane has that, too.”
Now that Schofield’s season is likely over with because of his injury, he’ll take on a support role from the sidelines. He said he’ll be there for encouragement and advice if Kuykendall needs it, but he doesn’t expect the transition to be a difficult one for him.
“He’s a pretty smart kid, he just needs to run hard and stay low,” Schofield said. “Fullback isn’t a hard position. It’s quick to learn. Me and him are about the same size, so I’d just tell him to stay low and run hard.”
Having a number of different weapons in the backfield and a quarterback that can do damage with his legs gives the Panthers an advantage that most teams don’t have. While many teams, like Hutto, rely heavily upon one impact player, the Panthers’ system doesn’t require them to, according to Walker.
“It takes all 11 in this system,” Walker said. “We’re not reliant on that one quarterback like Hutto is. If they have a guy that can’t get it to their playmakers, their playmakers aren’t very good, so they’re relying pretty much on this one kid. We don’t have to rely on any one kid. We feel like we can put three kids out there that will play hard and a good offensive line and we can be successful.”
Having those other weapons in the backfield is a luxury for a guy like Harrison, who would likely be keyed in on by every defense they play against if it weren’t for the unpredictability of the Panthers’ ball-fake heavy system that keeps defenses guessing.
“You’ve just got to do your job, and you know the other two are going to do their jobs, too,” Harrison said. “It’s nice, because if they’re trying to key somebody, they can’t key all three of us. We’re too good and we’re too fast, so they have to pick somebody, but we have two others, maybe three others with (Jacob) Cearley.”
Gonzalez has performed surprisingly well for a first-year running back so far this season, which makes it even harder for the defense to key in on one guy. With Kuykendall running up the middle and Harrison and Gonzalez capable of taking off for a touchdown on any given play, defenses have their hands full every time they take on the Panthers.
Having two other starting-caliber running backs in the backfield allows Harrison some much-needed rest, but he admitted that it can be tough having to split carries. With that being said, he understands that there’s no room for selfishness on the Liberty Hill football team as everybody is expected to fill their role, and that’s what makes them so dangerous.
“I like it, because you know you can get your rest, but at the same time, you want to get the ball every time,” Harrison said. “You can’t be selfish in this offense, though. Whenever you don’t have the ball, you’ve got to be blocking your life off for the guy running. It’s fun, though, because we all have different plays and the defense usually isn’t ready for it.”