Since the beginning of the decade, the season openers involving West and Fairland have always proven to be one of the better nonconference matchups of the season around the Southeastern Ohio area because of the different styles of play that each team brings to the table offensively.
For the Senators, it’s the traditional, smashmouth I-formation, which emphasizes discipline and ball control. As for the Dragons, it’s the spread formation, an ever-growing fad in high school offenses across the country — and one that is a perfect fit for the personnel that Fairland has.
However, no matter what formations both teams line up in on Friday evening, West head coach Ben Johnson knows that his unit must be prepared from a mental standpoint if the Senators want to emerge victorious on Friday evening against a tough Fairland team.
“We’ve got to come out with confidence,” Johnson said. “We are going to play with confidence, play hard, trust in each other, trust in the work that’s being put in, and believe in each other. We really hone in on playing really sound defense, we hone in on performing strongly in the special teams aspect of the game and look to gain an advantage by making a big play somewhere, and offensively, we want to control the football, take care of the football, and eat up the time of possession.”
And while all three points are certainly ones that need to be emphasized if victory is to be obtained, the last point that Johnson makes — time of possession — is arguably the most important one, because of the type of playmakers that are available at Fairland’s disposal, especially the football players that lie in the Dragons’ backfield, are guys that can break a long run on any given down.
In fact, four of Fairland’s top five backs, including Keedrick Cunningham, Joel Lambiotte, Greg Keeney, and Chase Fisher, all return for the Dragons. Each of the four matched or exceeded the four yards per carry threshold, with Cunningham leading the way behind his astronomical 1,380 yards rushing and nine touchdowns on just 113 carries — an average of 12.4 yards per carry. Lambiotte and Keeney combined to run for an additional 693 yards while exceeding six yards per carry, and Fisher accumulated 358 yards of his own to go along with five touchdown totes.
“(Fairland) has four guys that play in their backfield that can really cause some damage,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to try to contain those guys, make big plays, and gangtackle. We’ve got to get a lot of guys to the ball.”
While West certainly can’t hesitate on the defensive side of the football with the explosive backfield that Fairland has in its arsenal, Johnson’s ball control offense could serve as the perfect recipe in slowing the Dragons down. The leader of said offense, Dylan Bradford, is back to lead the Senators at the quarterback position, which can only mean good things for Johnson and West considering that Bradford threw for 665 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore.
“Dylan’s been looking good,” Johnson said. “He’s off to a good start and has pretty much picked up where he left off. He was really off to a good start last season before it was cut short. He’s got a really good grasp of the offense, and he’s a good leader, so we’re excited about having him back this year.”
A talented trio of backs are also expected to aid the Senators in its ball control efforts. Josh Berry, Garrett Hurd, and Cole Staggs ran for four touchdowns and 276 yards combined despite only having 76 carries from which to work with. All three are physical runners with a nice blend of athleticism.
“Cole, Garrett, and Josh are multi-sport athletes who have shown off their athleticism in multiple sports,” Johnson said. “They’re getting better, week after week.”
In order to make the ball control offense work, however, West will have to be prepared for a bevy of different looks that Fairland will throw at its disposal. According to Johnson, Fairland will not only switch from a four-man to a five-man front, but will also mix up their blitzing schemes as the game goes along.
“From what we’ve seen, Fairland has a four-man front,” Johnson said. “They like to keep two high safeties. That’s pretty much what they did last year. They did jump it to a five-man front last year a couple times, so we’ve also been preparing for that look as well. They’ll also bring blitzes from inside and outside. They’ll shift them back and forth to try to cause some problems, so we’ve got to be prepared, trust our blocking assignments, work hard, and fire off of the football.”
However, Melvin Cunningham’s Fairland unit can be defeated — if the Senators control the clock and effectively contain the Dragons’ backfield quartet.
“We’ve done a good job of getting to the ball, but we’ve got to get better at tackling,” Johnson said. “I believe that’s always going to be the case early on in the season, with getting back into the swing of things. However, our guys love to hit, and we’ve got a lot of veteran players on our defense who have produced, so we’re hoping to lean on those guys as the season progresses.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7