The rebuilding West Henderson Falcons fly under the radar this season in the tough Western North Carolina Athletic Conference, with a new cast running the flexbone triple option.
Head coach Paul Whitaker, is in his fourth year, has a junior-heavy squad and seven seniors. West returns merely three starters on offense, and two on defense. A new Falcon flock of talent has flown into Mills River, with junior varsity success in 2012. West JVs tied Franklin, behind East, in the WNCAC race and dropped its only two games by a combined five points.
A moral boost is the new co-athletic director, Luke Manuel, 36, symbolizes Falcon glory days many local youth may overlook. The 1995 grad quarterbacked a potent West backfield of Philip Keefe and Jay Young. All three ran superbly. Young is a West assistant football coach. He taught at Hendersonville Middle School for most of Manuel’s past five years there, as A.D.-assistant principal.
Back in the West nest, Manuel espouses the “Falcon Way — to do the right thing. Be a good person, with character on and off the field.” He handles A.D. duties in summer and fall, then Whitaker does so in winter and spring.
Recent Falcon success was led by brutal inside and dashing outside running of “The Kevins” — Kevin Robinson and Kevin Thomas — in 2008-10.
This fall, West’s triple option is run by either of two junior quarterbacks — Dustie Fender and William Crouch. Whitaker is “comfortable splitting time,” perhaps rotating them each series. This is unless one distinguishes himself, such as a “thrower on third down.” Both are nearly six feet tall, and improving arm strength which is similar, Whitaker said. “We’re working on throwing on time, before the receiver is actually open. Rather than waiting for him to get open first.”
Crouch is even-keeled while Fender is “more vocal,” Whitaker said. “He wears his emotions on his sleeve.” Both are team leaders. Crouch is catalyst as point guard on the basketball team, which Fender is also on, Whitaker said. “They’re friends, both great students and looked up to by teammates.”
Crouch played QB much more last year as JV starter. Fender has two more varsity seasons. Last year, he backed up Brandon Letchworth (1,286 yd. passing in ‘12) who since graduated. As contact drills begin this week, “they’re even. In our first official practices (since Aug. 1), you couldn’t tell who either one was by their play. We can’t pick a starter, just yet.”
He said they are similar in decisions such as reading defenses and “identifying the (fullback) dive, and (wide) pitch key. We put a lot on their shoulders, to change the play at the line of scrimmage. They decide which side the option is going to. We’re throwing scenarios at them” in practice.
Whichever one is not the QB can play halfback — which Fender did last year. Both are most adept running inside “between the tackles,” but can also go wide, Whitaker said. Crouch has quicker initial steps which as QB helps ignite the option, but Fender is faster once in gear and into open field, the coach noted.
If a run-based offense is contained, it is more easily stymied on third and long. Thus, look for more “play action” (off fake handoffs) passes in short-yardage situations, Whitaker said. “We want to throw when we want to, not when we have to.”
In the triple option, the fullback gets up to 60 percent of carries, Whitaker noted. Thus strong returning starter Jonathan Perron (6-1, 180 sr.) is a key. He plays fullback, or “H-back” slot/tight end when there are “pistol” shotgun snaps for passes or runs.
West deploys two wingbacks at a time. Athletic 6-2 Alex Ball surges inside, while fellow junior Cody Jackson is a fast “edge runner” going wide on pitchouts, Whitaker said. The two QBs and others may rotate between backfield and defensive chores. Whitaker said 6-3 split end Taylor Geyer is a “good route runner and possession, go-to guy.” He succeeds graduated Blake Whitaker (45 rec., 866 yd.), the coach’s son.
“We’re smaller in the backfield, but bigger on the offensive line,” Whitaker said. Aggressive center Brian Albea (6-3, 240 jr.) is back. New starters are likely guards Wesley Burrell (5-10, 200 sr.) and OG Zach Boyd (6-0, 265 jr.), and mobile tackles John Weaver (6-1, 220 jr.) and Casone Ward (5-8, 185 jr.) who “chase down linebackers” on wide runs, Whitaker said. “They’re thrown to the fire quickly.” Development of the O-line is crucial.
Returning defensive starters in the “52” scheme are nose guard Chris Maggert and DBs Fender and Perron. Likely starters include strong and mobile 240-pound DT Lucas Capps, LB Weaver, and DBs Jackson and Crouch.
The main challenge is not skill, rather varsity experience, Coach Whitaker said. “It’s different playing on (JV) Thursday and Friday nights. Varsity players are faster and stronger. How well we adapt early is crucial.” He added, “We want to be competitive, and be in every game” and do better in pulling out close contests.