Bulldogs rounding into form with young running backs, quarterback, offensive line
MATTHEWS – Butler coach Brian Hales is the first to admit that this year’s collection of Bulldogs is unlike any he’s had in the seven years since he has been the coach.
The Bulldogs have traditionally relied on a spread offense, balanced attacks and strong-armed quarterbacks like Riley Ferguson, Anthony Ratliff-Williams or last year’s starter Davis Cheek.
Cheek led last year’s team to average more than 44 points per game. Ratliff-Williams guided the Bulldog offense to more than 44 points in 2014 and Ferguson averaged more than 46 points per game in his three years as a starter that produced two state titles.
This year’s team doesn’t have the same makeup, not that it’s lacking in any way from the usual Butler star power. The offense is scoring just under 28 points per game – the lowest total for any Bulldog team since 2001 – although the team has won six consecutive games and will be in line for the school’s fourth consecutive league title and 12th in the previous 13 years with a win over Hickory Ridge this week.
“Everybody knows this isn’t your average Butler team,” Hales said. “It was just a matter of us taking a few weeks to figure out what our identity needed to be and what we needed to do. We’re not there yet. We’re getting there, but if you can run the ball and you have a great defense, you have a chance in any ball game. That’s what we’re doing really well right now.”
The Bulldogs lost four of their top five receivers from last year. They have playmakers at the position in Damel Hickman, TJ Cusick, Keyon Lesane and Navarreo Rorie who have shown big-play ability.
This year’s starter at quarterback, sophomore Christian Peters, has flashed plenty of potential of his own and has thrown for 689 yards and six touchdowns through seven games, but Hales and his staff aren’t putting too much pressure on their young signal caller.
And they don’t have to.
Senior running backs Nijere Peoples, junior Keyon Lesane and sophomores Quasean Holmes and Jamal Worthy have combined for 229 carries – nearly 33 per game – and have gained 1,427 yards as the foursome averages over 6.2 yards per carry.
Teams know what’s coming, but the Bulldog attack has become so good it’s been nearly impossible to stop no matter who’s carrying the ball.
“Most of the teams we’ve played to this point have been pretty balanced in their run and pass attack,” Myers Park coach Scott Chadwick said before Butler beat the Mustangs 28-7 on Oct. 6 behind 225 rushing yards in the second half alone. “So this is going to be a little different facing a team that primarily wants to run the football. They do what they do well, and they have gotten very good at what they do.”
Hales said the difference lies in the versatility of his group of backs.
Peoples was the starter and is the leading rusher for the Bulldogs with 625 yards and six touchdowns. He ran for a school record 275 yards in a win over Porter Ridge earlier this year, a monumental feat considering the running back talent that’s come through the Bulldog program.
“That game made me feel humbled because there have been a lot of great running backs who have come through here like Benny (LeMay), Ryan Houston and Josh Glisson,” said Peoples, who was injured on the first play of the Myers Park game and missed last week’s win over Independence with a high ankle sprain but is expected back this week. “Our run game is doing really well, but it’s going to get a whole lot better. We’re getting better week in and week out and we’re going to become a complete offense and then we’re going to be unstoppable. It’s going to get a whole lot worse for teams.”
Hales said having four guys who can get the job done makes it easier for him to keep the runners fresh.
“The great thing about it is they are three different types of running backs,” Hales said. “They’ve got some similarities and they’re all very hard to get on the ground. They’re all big, strong, healthy kids and they run really hard. Jamal is a great blocker and he has that extra gear. We can do so much with Nijere as far as throwing the ball to him and playing him in the slot, so that’s been a huge blessing to have them do what they do.”
Without Peoples, sophomores Worthy (82 carries, 447 yards) and Holmes (27 carries, 180 yards) and junior H-back Lesane (25 carries, 177 yards) have filled in admirably and carried the load.
“We prepare with everybody being the same, so when anyone steps on the field we have the next man up mentality and know that we can all do it,” Worthy said.
Holmes and Peoples said a big reason for the running back’s success has been the offensive line, particularly Cam Taylor and freshman Leo Arredondo.
Along with tackle/tight end Jeff Rouse, Taylor one of two seniors on the line and has started at every position.
Juniors Brenden Manning, who has returned from injury to start at center, guard David Vashakidze and tight end Caleb Barkley has joined sophomore tackles Trey Richburg and Anthony Carter and Arredondo to form an ever-improving line that’s opening big holes for the run game.
With all of the parts fitting together perfectly, this Butler team keeps getting better and better despite not putting up the gaudy offensive numbers in years past.
“People know what we’re going to do and they still can’t stop it,” Peoples said. “We know we can be as good as we want to be. As running backs we reel really comfortable because we can depend on whoever comes in to step up. I knew went down or even next year when I’m not going to be here, I can count on these guys. We’re playing really well right now, but this is only the beginning.”
And this may be only just the beginning of another run of Butler dominance.
With a young team that starts a number of key freshmen and sophomores, this team has the feel of the 2010 team that started sophomores Channing Stribling, Ferguson, Peter Kalambayi, Uriah LeMay and others who helped the Bulldogs win two state titles.
“I told people before the year that if they were going to get us this was going to be the year to do it,” Hales said half jokingly. “We’ve figured out who we are and what we do best so we’ve gotten much better from the beginning to now. That’s exciting, but we’re also building this up because not only are we starting to play well and win games while we’re doing it, we’re setting these guys up for the future and I’m real excited about what that means for us.”