Admiral Farragut Academy and Countryside had one thing in common last season — a superstar leader on offense.
The Blue Jackets had electrifying dual-threat quarterback Josh Burch. The Cougars had elusive running back Alton Taylor. Both piled up tons of yards and scored at will. They each were first-team all-county selections and led their teams to playoff berths.
And both are gone.
But their graduation did not spell doom for either team. AFA and Countryside are back in the playoffs — and are the only county programs left in the second round — because each has become a team in the truest sense of the word on offense.
They have gotten this far not because they hang on to the coattails of some talented superstar who can bail them out in key situations, but because they have a collection of hardworking skill players who check their egos at the door and don’t mind sharing the load.
“We have a lot of weapons, but we’re balanced,” Blue Jackets coach Chris Miller said. “And that has been a plus for us.”
Rayshawn Jenkins, a junior, has taken over at quarterback for AFA and has done his best to impersonate the Houdini-like skills
Burch displayed as he wiggles out of the rush to buy time to find an open receiver or take off downfield for a first down. Jenkins has thrown for 824 yards and rushed for 647.
But he doesn’t have to do it all.
Most of the time he wheels around and hands off to freshman Cortavious Givens or sophomore Toddrick Macon, backs who provide a different set of skills. Givens, a bruiser, has 545 yards on the ground. Macon, the speedster, leads the team with 687.
“It’s hard for an opponent to focus on one guy on this team,” Givens said. “That’s what makes us dangerous.”
When Jenkins drops back to throw, he can look for receiver Robert Goddard, tight end Demetrius Lewis or plenty of others.
“We have a ton of skills guys,” Jenkins said. “Anyone can have a big game on any given night.”
The Blue Jackets are built on speed and like to use the shotgun and multiple receiver sets to create space and open lanes for the running game.
“We’ve had a lot of success running the ball, and that’s what teams are going to focus on in the playoffs,” Miller said. “But we also have the ability to spread things and throw the football with success.”
The Cougars’ preference is to run the ball, particularly behind their mammoth offensive line, led by tackles Tyler Moore and Tyler Pierson.
The only thing to figure out was who would be the running backs. Joey Lombardi was inserted as the starter in the spring, but he hurt his groin in summer workouts and was eventually moved to receiver.
That gave Diomi Roberts and Terry Johnson bigger roles as runners. Both have responded well to the workload. Roberts leads the team with more than 1,100 yards and has 14 touchdowns. Johnson, who works more between the tackles, has more than 600 yards and leads the team with 16 touchdowns.
“I guess you could say we’re thunder and lightning,” Johnson said of himself and Roberts. “We both have different styles, but we get the job done.”
Johnson, a senior, was one of the Cougars’ primary runners two years ago. But he was moved to linebacker last season, paving the way for Taylor to have his breakout year. With Taylor gone, Johnson was asked to play both ways.
“I don’t mind getting the ball,” Johnson said. “I thought I would get a few more carries.”
But there are others who get the ball, too. In fact, the Cougars’ running game is so balanced that five players have rushed for at least 200 yards.
The passing game also has come around, especially the second half of the season. Gray Crow has thrown for more than 1,200 yards, and five receivers have at least 10 catches .
“There are a lot of guys who can contribute,” Countryside coach Jared Davis said. “There’s not one said superstar who we’re looking to get the ball to every play.
“I guess that’s what makes us different. Usually in high school there is one guy who you know is going to get the ball and that’s who you have to stop. But if that guy is shut down, then that team is in trouble.
“We wanted to be balanced by design because it’s hard for anyone to key on one thing. And we’ve had some success with that.”