When it comes to running the football, offensive preferences and philosophies can vary greatly from one coaching staff to another. Some teams have a primary running back that carries the load. Others go with a two-back rotation. For some, rushing is an afterthought.
This season at Free State High, coach Bob Lisher has a bit of a three-headed-monster approach. Senior TJ Cobbs (101 carries, 664 yards, 14 touchdowns) gets the most touches for the Firebirds (9-1), but the coaching staff never hesitates to relieve him with junior Joe Dineen (59 carries, 364 yards, seven touchdowns) or senior Demarko Bobo (42 carries, 261 yards, four touchdowns).
“It’s nice to change it up some,” Lisher said, “so we don’t beat our guys to death.”
Like every other week, the coach said FSHS will enter this Friday’s second-round playoff game against Olathe East (6-4) — 7 p.m. kickoff at FSHS — with no set plan on who will get a certain number of touches or which back will play on a certain series. Lisher said the coaches like the flexibility the three backs provide, and the personnel and play-calling are decided by the flow of the game.
“They all can do it all,” he added.
Each back could be described as a downhill runner, but Lisher said they all have different ways of doing their jobs. Dineen (6.2 yards a carry) might be the fastest. Bobo (6.2) is a physical rusher who can pick up yards between the tackles. And Cobbs (6.6) is an all-around threat who can break a big play inside or outside. The thing Lisher loves is that all three can produce on any play that is called.
Dineen said Cobbs is the best back of the trio, and none of them mind sharing the rushing burden.
“We don’t really get tired, because we have three (backs) and we just rotate all the time,” Dineen said. “Whenever we get tired we can send in someone who’s just as good.”
Plus, the opposing defense doesn’t get the same look over and over again. Cobbs rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns in the Firebirds’ first-round win over Olathe North. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior said when he’s at his best, he is lowering his shoulder and running over defenders.
This is his approach: “Go north and south, get downhill and don’t dance over anyone. Let them know that you were there.”
Of course, there is some room for improvisation, too. Junior offensive lineman Fred Wyatt said the blockers up front always try to get off the line of scrimmage and open rushing lanes, but Free State’s running backs can be unpredictable at times if they’re cutting back across the field looking for more yards.
That can make it more difficult for the O-line — Wyatt, Riley Buller, Reid Buckingham, Tyler Sampson and Cody Stanclift — to block.
“We don’t really like it when they cut back,” Wyatt said with a grin, “but as long as they’re gaining positive yards I guess it doesn’t really matter.”
The ball carrier who snakes his way down the field most might be senior quarterback Kyle McFarland (118 rushes, 643 yards, six touchdowns). Dineen said the dual-threat QB can pick up big first downs on a designed run or an ad-lib.
“He has really good patience as a runner,” Dineen said. “He sees the hole well and hits it when it opens up.”
The added threat of McFarland to Free State’s rushing attack (200.5 yards a game), Lisher said, can be difficult to defend.
“A lot of teams try to take our running game away. Some of them have. We’re fortunate we can throw the ball as well,” the coach said. “If they’re packing it in tight I still want to run the football, but I’m not gonna beat my head against the wall, either.”
McFarland has thrown for 1,487 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. Between the quarterback’s contribution to the ground game and three reliable running backs, who needs an alpha back anyway?
“It doesn’t matter,” Lisher said, “as long as we move the football.”