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TAMPA — Jesuit coach James Harrell doesn’t hide the fact that when it comes to who is getting the most carries in his crowded backfield, he’s going with the hot hand.
“You’ll see, whoever’s hot is getting the ball that night,” Harrell said.
His running backs also know one thing: They will be relied on to provide the backbone of the running game, the Tigers’ bread and butter.
In the Tigers’ 35-20 Class 5A region semifinal win over district rival Robinson, Jesuit utilized its ground game for 237 yards (its second-highest output of the season; the Tigers ran for 238 in a 78-0 rout of Lennard) and three rushing touchdowns on 43 carries.
As they travel to Pasco for this week’s region final, the Tigers know they will have to do much of the same — sustain long drives on the ground to keep the Pirates’ offense off the field.
But in Jesuit’s backfield, the tale is share and share alike. The Tigers have three running backs with more than 470 yards and four with at least 210 yards.
“We have the most fun running the ball, knocking people down and getting pancakes and going up to the linebackers,” senior offensive lineman Robert Gibbons said. “We look forward to that.”
Fleet-footed Kevin Newman, a freshman, has rushed for 485 yards and a team-high 15 touchdowns. Junior Will Lucas, who ran for a single-game team-high 113 yards against Robinson last week, leads the team with 620 yards and has nine touchdowns. A pair of seniors, Rico Gonzalez (476 yards) and Kyle Statz (7.0 yards a carry), are also key contributors.
“We all try to be the hot hand every week,” said Gonzalez, who owns one of Jesuit’s two individual 100-yard rushing performances this season. “We know if we’re the hot hand we’re going to get the ball. We expect that. We’re not all going to be hot every week.”
It’s a luxury Harrell relishes.
“It was two-fold,” Harrell said. “We have guys with different skill sets. We have a quick guy. We have a power guy. We didn’t have just one guy we were going to give the ball to. Our guys worked hard, so this affords us the opportunity have special packages for different guys. It helps with morale. It keeps a positive attitude. Guys feel involved. It’s worked out quite well.”
And in last week’s win over Robinson, the Tigers orchestrated their perfect game plan.
Jesuit’s opening drive ate up 6:31 of clock — with Statz drawing the Knights defense in with running plays from the spread — and ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Lucas. On their next scoring drive, establishing the run made Robinson bite on a play-action touchdown pass to Gonzalez.
By the end of the day, Jesuit had a balanced attack, with quarterback Bobby Eveld throwing for 286 yards and two touchdowns. Jesuit held possession (33:20) twice as often as Robinson (14:40). And it was all set up by the run.
“It’s kind of a mind game,” Statz said. “It gets their defense to step back and bite, and once they step back, our line just pushes to the linebackers and we just push up on them.”