Timeout football: Switching from spread to Wildcat paying off for West Side offense
By Mike Hutton 648-3139 or firstname.lastname@example.org October 25, 2012 11:30PM
West Side head coach Jason Johnson walks the sidelines during the Cougar's game against Hobart August 17th. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
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Updated: November 27, 2012 11:12AM
GARY — Sometimes, the answers are counterintuitive.
The perennial dilemma for football coaches in Gary is line play. They just don’t have ready-made, skilled linemen who developed in Pop Warner.
It’s always a scramble to fill holes and find big guys who can learn the trade quickly, sometimes in a few weeks of practice. West Side coach Jason Johnson said that it got so bad this year that two of his better linemen left to pursue a career in rap music.
“Depth on the line in Gary is something you always have to deal with,” Johnson said. “We’ve probably got five Division I players on the team but not a lot of linemen. We don’t get them until they are 14 or 15. They don’t want to come out and give up their whole summer.”
The early season answer to that for Johnson was to run the spread because it’s easier than trying to teach his newbie linemen how to pull and trap and push forward. Pass blocking is a matter of getting back and holding your ground for a few seconds. Get your best athletes out there and put the ball in their hands.
Johnson’s best lineman, Sale Preston Smith, a 6-5, 290-pound sophomore, has college potential but he didn’t have Smith until the third game of the season against Andrean because he didn’t have 10 practices in.
One problem with the spread: It can discriminate against getting the ball in the hands of your very best player.
This is how it went for Johnson, who was disturbed after his nephew and the most explosive player on the team, Lonnie Johnson, only touched the ball a handful of times in the Cougars’ second game of the season against Chicago Lindblom. Despite the 58-6 blowout, Johnson knew that they had to get the ball in the hands of Lonnie if they were going to achieve consistent offensive success.
So, he bagged the spread as his primary offense after a team meeting and went to the Wildcat. That means Lonnie Johnson gets a direct snap from center.
The results are now conclusive: It was a good move, the right move for the Cougars football team.
West Side went from throwing the ball nearly 80 percent of the time to a mix of pass-ran that is now 56 to 44.
And Lonnie Johnson has started to realize his potential as a standout athlete who has a big-time college career on the horizon.
At 6-3, 180, Johnson runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4. Last year, he finished fifth in the long jump at state.
“We just decided we wanted him handling and running the ball,” Jason Johnson said.
That would be almost all the time. Lonnie is averaging over 10.5 yards per carry. So far, he has rushed for 687 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also has 713 yards receiving and has caught 13 touchdown passes. Defensively, Johnson has four interceptions and nine pass breakups.
Moving Johnson from wide receiver to running back has completely changed the dynamic of the Cougars’ offense. They always try to run the ball first. If that doesn’t work, they have the spread to fall back on.
The move meant that quarterback Ramone Atkins, a sophomore who has passed for more than 2,600 yards, has turned into a blocker much of the time for Johnson. He doesn’t mind.
“As long as it’s helping us win,” Atkins said.
It is. Last week, the Cougars beat Roosevelt 54-12. It was the third straight win for them — two of them coming against the Panthers.
Highland, with just two victories this season, is definitely vulnerable with a reserve of big-time playmakers in West Side’s lineup.
For Johnson, who has been targeted as a star since he started playing Pop Warner in Gary, the offensive change has been a blast.
“It’s been cool,” he said. “It’s amazing.”