LAND O’ LAKES — Pasco County wants to run away with it all.
A growing trend that’s hardly trendy, this area is producing top-notch running backs who have become the focal points of most of the 14 varsity teams’ offenses.
“Everyone wants to build an offense off the run game,” Pasco High offensive coordinator Brad Starling said. “I think priority becomes to establish a run game, and we fall into the category.
“But it also goes with the hand you’re dealt.”
It’s true each team, as well as each year, is blessed differently with a different athlete who can either become a workhorse running back, a quarterback scrambling for yards on a direct snap, or even the truly old-school backfield runner implemented in a Wing-T offense.
The past few seasons, Pasco County has seen top backs become the true playmaker, racking up the rushing yards by the dozens. In 2013, the county had six (actually, nearly seven) 1,000-plus yard rushers, and two of those return with sights set on the 2,000-yard mark.
“I absolutely do think it’s a running county,” Land O’ Lakes offensive coordinator Josh Scroggins said. “It’s not an actual philosophy, but schools are blessed to have some pretty big offensive lines and good running backs and/or athletes. When you have that skill set, you pound the rock. Teams, I think, do a great job of putting athletes at running back and getting the yards out of them.”
With the return of Ridgewood junior Glass Wilson (1,518 yards) and Sunlake senior Nathan Johnson (1,504), and even Zephyrhills senior Jaylen Pickett, who had 808 yards on 118 carries, the rushing attack will still be the primary offense for most teams. Even the Gators, who return senior quarterback James Pensyl (2,345 passing yards, 22 touchdowns).
“When you have a gunslinger,” Scroggins said, “you’re going to throw it. I’m not opposed to throwing it 35 times a game, if that’s what (an opposing defense gives) us. But when we need to hand the ball, we will. It’s what you have to do when you adjust during a game or throughout the season.
“Jaylen is one of the most athletic backs I’ve ever seen and Nathan has good strength to lower his shoulder and get his yards. You expect the playmakers to become the focal points, and personally, I’d build an offense around them, just like we have around James.”
Last season, the Gators, who have one of the rare offenses that has a more prominent air attack, still ran the ball 49 percent of the time, whether Pensyl kept it for 162 yards and a team-high five touchdowns or let running back Larenz Scroggins gain a team-high 588 yards.
Additionally, the 2013 Pirates adjusted from a traditional quarterback with Grant Starling to put in do-it-all athlete Malik Johns at wildcat QB and gain 1,078 rushing yards.
Then teams such as River Ridge (Ben Perdomo, 1,170 yards) and Hudson (Noah Siegrist, 1,400 yards). Sunlake and Ridgewood went with a traditional pro-style single-back set. As productive as that was, Anclote’s two-headed rushing attack of Willie Barrett (1,062 yards) and Trent Crawford (995) led the Sharks to their most successful season by splitting 252 carries.
“I think whatever puzzle pieces (teams) have is what it comes down to whether they’re pass or run more,” Sunlake coach Bill Browning said. “You have to — have to — adjust to your personnel. Even last year, everyone said we were run, run, run, but we still threw for more than 1,000 yards with three different quarterbacks.
“I think if you have a quarterback and some guys that can catch, you’d be crazy not to pass. When we had Jacob Jackson, who threw and ran for 1,000 yards each, he was a good dual threat, but even those are rare and will probably run before they throw.
“Not everyone may say this, but I try to go into the season (with an offense that’s) 50/50 passing and rushing. But we have someone like Nathan Johnson, who is a great downhill runner, so we run downhill. I dont know if you can say Pasco County is more running or passing because each coach works with what’s given to him year to year.”
Across the county, coaches are breaking from their norm, whether they’re known for running the ball more or calling more pass plays.
Take Fivay coach Chris Taylor, a notorious run-heavy coach. In 2013, the Falcons ran the ball 304 times, but still produced 1,415 passing yards and 15 touchdowns with quarterback Eric Vitale.
And despite teams returning experienced, talented quarterbacks such as Hudson’s Joey Caruso, who still rushed 92 times for 291 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013, or Wiregrass Ranch’s Shane Bucenell, who passed for 1,128 and seven touchdowns, standout running backs will still contribute to their teams’ runaway success.
“If you’ve got the guys to (run 30-40 times a game), then you’re going to do that,” Starling said. “We’ve done that before: stack the line and run the ball and maybe throw it 12-15 times. We used it to eat up the clock. It’s a good technique and you do see it in this county.”