Pats pound ground while adding air assault

Herald file photo
Heritage Hills' Gavin Vaal was pursued by Forest Park's Nick Werner during last season's matchup in Lincoln City. Vaal, along with teammates Jacob Wetzel and Noah Mundy, are moving the ball on the ground as well as through the air this season.

By JONATHAN SAXON
jsaxon@dcherald.com

LINCOLN CITY — It’s the worst-kept secret in southern Indiana just how much Heritage Hills loves its ground game. The Patriots are all about lining up and pounding the ball up and down the field as much as they can before opposing defenses submit

It’s a formula which not only produced great results last year, but also has them sitting on two wins after two weeks this season. But while the ground-and-pound approach butters the Pats’ bread, they are also surreptitiously using their running backs to establish their own kind of air superiority.

Through all 11 games last season, the Patriots passed for 340 yards and four touchdowns — combined.

However, after this season’s first two games, that total currently stands at 207 yards and three touchdowns. Inspecting the pass catchers yields an even further interesting pattern: Of the team’s eight receptions, five of those catches have gone to the ground crew, which consists of seniors Gavin Vaal, Jacob Wetzel and Noah Mundy. They are also collectively responsible for two of the team’s three receiving touchdowns.

“We still want to run the ball, but we need to be able to throw the ball if we need to,” Heritage Hills coach Todd Wilkerson said. “There’s only two receivers, and there’s three running backs. So when you do the math, a lot of those guys get out at different times in the play-action game and get catches.”

Coaches are always looking for creative ways to deliver the football into the hands of their best playmakers, and using running backs as receivers out of the backfield has proven to be an effective way to create separation from defenses to net positive plays down the field. When a team is able to extend its passing game to the runnings backs, suddenly there's a potential for mismatches in the open field, and opportunities to hit weak spots in coverage.

Defenses now have to account for more than just one or two receivers plus a possible tight end as pass catchers, which can let an offense wreak chaos at will if they have the athletes to execute it.

“It’s kind of like a double-sided dagger almost,” said Vaal, who scored his first touchdown of the season on a 38-yard pass play against Mt. Vernon. “Teams have got to be ready to play the run, but they've also got to watch for the pass. You can slip right out of the backfield and be a target.”

“It makes you feel confident about your offense knowing you have several guys on the field that can do the same thing,” added Wetzel, who has the other touchdown reception for the backs, a 26-yard connection which occured in the Tell City game. “For the defense, that’s scary. They’re having to defend against something like that, and it keeps them on their heels.”

All of the guys have played in schemes which required them to catch the ball out of the backfield from time to time, so they embrace the challenge of using their talents to take up routes and become downfield targets for senior quarterback Cole Sigler.

He has a rapport with the backs which stems from a lifetime of playing in the backyard and youth sports leagues, so he throws with confidence when he looks to connect with one of the running backs when they go long.

“We put a lot of emphasis on it,” the Pats signal-caller said. “We work on all of our plays really hard so whenever we get out there, we’re prepared for anything that somebody may throw at us. I feel comfortable with any of them. We all played together forever.”

Wilkerson likes to mix it up when it comes to the passing plays he’ll call in a given situation. He’ll use short passes to extend the ground game, or take to the air for bombs if the defenses are loading the box to stop the run. He looks to get the football to his players any way he can, and they love playing in a system that’s designed to spread out the touches for big plays on any given down.

“Guys who play offense want to touch the ball,” the Pats coach said. “They love any opportunity they get to catch a pass or run the ball. I’ve been watching our stats. We haven’t had one guy that’s been dominating anywhere statistically. We’ve had four or five guys running the ball and catching the ball, and that’s what we need to do.”

While the Pats don’t have any plans to switch and become a West Coast kind of offense anytime soon, they enjoy the fact that their backs are versatile and equally as effective in the running and passing games. Creating that balance on offense is a big focus for Heritage Hills, and with the talents it has, it will be interesting to see how its passing element evolves as the season moves ahead.

“We’ve been working all offseason together. I think we've got a good group coming,” said Mundy, who leads the running backs with three catches for 62 yards so far. “Heritage Hills has been known as a run-heavy team, but it brings a whole new intensity when a team can pass in their offense as well. I’m excited to be a part of that this season.”




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