By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
In the four seasons prior to 2017, teams such as Ocean City and Cedar Creek didn’t have to worry about the quarterback position. Andrew Donoghue and Jesse Milza were four-year starters for their respective teams, and by their senior years their coaches opened up the playbook and those teams were throwing the ball all over the lot.
This fall, it looks as though some area teams have turned the clock back to 1975 and are featuring ground-and-pound run games as they try to coax along first-year quarterbacks. But reverting to the running game has worked in several situations, most notably Ocean City and Cedar Creek. The Red Raiders and Pirates are a combined 7-2. Ironically enough, when Ocean City played Cedar Creek in September — a 22-13 Pirates win — three of the five touchdowns scored came via the forward pass, which hasn’t exactly been the norm throughout the first five weeks of the season.
Cedar Creek (5-1) has relied heavy on the running ability of guys such as Kamaal Reed, Jeremy Taylor and Malachi Melton as sophomore quarterback Louie Barrios has gotten his sea legs under him. Ocean City (4-1) is in a good situation because the Red Raiders have senior Harry Pfeifle stepping in to replace Donoghue, the most prolific passer in school history. Pfeifle missed his junior year with a knee injury and played wide receiver his first two years, and while he has limited experience as a quarterback he’s no stranger to varsity athletics. He’s one of the top players on the Cape-Atlantic League champion lacrosse team.
Ocean City coach Kevin Smith and Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson said they aren’t necessarily scheme guys, preferring to fit their offense around the talent they have each year. That ability to be versatile is part of the reason both teams are contending for state playoff berths in their respective sections.
“Fortunately, we have a kid like Harry Pfeifle who can step in. Harry is a big-time athlete, a stud lacrosse player, started for us as a freshman as a defensive back. He knows how to win, he knows how to work, and best of all he is an excellent leader. The kids really respond to him. And he’s smart, and that makes it a lot easier. It doesn’t matter what we know, it matters what we can get the kids to do. A lot of times when you turn it over and bring in a new quarterback you’re starting back at the basics, but Harry’s smart, experienced and all those other things that have allowed us to do a lot more. So, that’s a luxury we have,” Smith said. “There are a lot of different philosophies. Some coaches are married to a scheme and they are going to run that scheme like a system. My approach has always been that you have to fit what you do to the players that you have. Our run game is the same as it has been, we’re just doing it with different guys. We’re not changing our run plays, we’re just running them with the quarterback more than we ever did.
“Sometimes you see things on film when you’re looking at a defense and you’re thinking, ‘we should do this.’ But then you have to ask yourself, ‘can we execute that?’ A lot of things look good on the white board, then you bring them out to the practice field and they don’t look as good.”
“Every year you try to do the best with what you have and what will work best with the personnel you have. That’s kind of where we are now. We know we’re only going to get better throwing the ball, but we know we’re a little bit young there. For us, some of the strong things we can do right now is along the offensive line and in the backfield,” Watson said. “We don’t go into it thinking, ‘we don’t have our four-year starter back, so we’re going to do this.’ You kind of see how it goes and you find out more as you get going. There have been some good things and some big-time growth in our passing game, but we’ve also got some guys we can count on rushing the ball.”
“Each quarterback has their own skill set and what they are good at, so you try to build your offense around what your guys are good at. We’ve been around for a long time, so we have experience with a lot of stuff. We had quarterbacks who were similar to Harry back at Buena, guys who were very good runners, so we were like, ‘let’s run some of that stuff we ran with those guys back in the day.’ You think to yourself, ‘what is our guy good at?’ And based on your experience you think, ‘well, we’ve run stuff like this with guys who were like that,’” added Ocean City offensive coordinator Paul Callahan. “Andrew could run, but because our backup last year was a sophomore and Harry was hurt, we wanted to get as few hits on Donoghue as possible. We had new offensive linemen and new running backs, so that offense sort of morphed into what those guys did best and what was best for them. Harry can throw and he does things really well throwing the ball, but the offense sort of organically takes its shape based on what you’re doing. Right now, we’re trying to get better at some of the other aspects to be able to throw more because there are going to be teams you have to throw the ball more against.”
In a 41-0 win over West Windsor-Plainsboro South in late September, Ocean City scored five rushing touchdowns and they came from four different players, including two from Pfeifle and one each from running backs Issac Robertson, Liam Bergman and Cian O’Donoghue. And in Cedar Creek’s 35-0 win over Mainland on Oct. 6, the Pirates got five rushing touchdowns from three players, two from Barrios, two from Reed and one from Isaiah Davis.
Fans watching those two games were probably wondering what the heck they were witnessing.
“I’m not a big stat guy, but it would be interesting to see when the last time we did that was. In a situation like that, you just go with what’s working,” Watson said. “I think in the future we’ll have an opportunity to open things up and throw a little bit more every week. With Louie, every game is like a world of experience for him. We’re very high on him and we think he’s going to be a very good player, and what makes him special is what he can do with his legs, too. If people haven’t had a chance to watch him, over the next couple of years I think you’ll see him develop into one of the better quarterbacks around here.”
Watson and Smith both agreed that, given the choice, most offensive linemen would prefer to run block.
“I’ve never met a single offensive lineman who likes to pass block more than they like to run block. You’re a target when you’re pass blocking. Run blocking is a much more aggressive mentality,” Smith said.
“Those guys always prefer to run block. They like getting nasty and dirty in there,” Watson added. “They want to score and move the ball, first and foremost. We have a couple of new guys up front, but there have been times when our offensive line has been very cohesive and has looked tight and is playing physical.”
Callahan said Pfeifle is a pretty simple guy. He likes winning, and whatever is working to help the Red Raiders win. If that means running the ball 40 times, he’s all for it, Callahan said.
“Kids like the offense when it works; when it doesn’t work, they don’t like it. When I talked to Harry on the headphones during the Oakcrest game I said, ‘hey Harry, what do you like? What’s working?’ He said, ‘I like any play, as long as it’s a running play,’” Callahan said. “Harry likes to run, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to throw or isn’t good at throwing. The biggest thing for Harry is — where Andrew was in the pocket for four years and was so used to doing it at game speed — Harry just hasn’t had that experience. Last year he was hurt and the other years he was playing wide receiver, so he hasn’t played full-time quarterback since he was in eighth grade. He just needs game reps.”
Ocean City and Cedar Creek coaches warned fans not to get too used to seeing 35 rushing attempts per game, however. They are itching to dive a little deeper in the playbook, and likely will as their quarterbacks continue to get game reps. They want to be as diverse as possible if they are able to make the state playoffs. Being too one-dimensional is a recipe for an early exit in the postseason.
“There’s a ton of stuff we’ve been practicing since August, we just haven’t run it yet, and eventually we’ll feel comfortable enough to run it,” Callahan said. “One thing I learned about coaching down here is, schools in the Cape-Atlantic have good coaches. If you run the same thing over and over, they’re going to defend it. Guys like Pete Lancetta and Paul Sacco, Dave Ellen, I’ve coached against some really good coaches. So you have to be able to do things and tweak your offense. We’re just going to try to refine the things we have and go from there. By no means are we where we can be offensively.”
Watson is primarily a defensive coach, so he leaves much of the offense in the hands of Offensive Coordinator Gary Melton. Watson said he just wants a couple of touchdowns so his defense can do it’s thing.
“Primarily, my main concern is making sure our defense is doing a good job to put our offense in good position. I trust our offensive staff to put a good game plan together,” Watson said. “What we’re finding out as a young program is that ball security is key. The first four games we had about 14 turnovers and against Mainland we didn’t have any. As a head coach, I just want to keep the other team from scoring and whether we score on offense or special teams, I don’t really care how it happens, as long as it happens.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays