Under Tony Plott, the Woodland rushing attack has always been the engine that drives the team’s offense. 2020 will be no different.
While the Wildcats lost workhorse Demarcus Williams to graduation, there is a stable of competent backs eager to help make up the difference. Rising junior Asa James will be the primary backfield option this year after splitting carries with Williams last fall, but others — namely rising seniors Noah Tidwell and Johnathan Thomas — are set to see a large uptick in rushing attempts.
With such a unique offseason — devoid of spring ball and full of summer workout restrictions — Plott is thankful his team is returning so much of its running game's core group.
“It’s very, very important, because we’re only trying to replace one guy instead of two or three,” he said. “… We have guys we feel like can fill in and do a great job for us. Losing Demarcus hurts, obviously, but we feel like we’ve got some kids we can put in there.”
James is certainly chief among that group.
As a sophomore, he led Woodland with 166 carries in nine games, totaling 725 yards and four touchdowns. He had 29 more carries than Williams, who closed out his final season with 675 yards and nine touchdowns on 137 rushing attempts. Although, the difference is due in large part to Williams missing nearly three full games due to injury.
The season was full of ups and downs for James. He had 209 rushing yards against Paulding County, while posting 167 total yards, plus a score, against Villa Rica. There were also some predictable struggles against powerhouses Carrollton and Rome. Those four teams are all off the schedule this season.
With a more veteran offensive line this year, after having to replace the entire unit from the 2018 season, James should have plenty of chances for big games. His experiences last fall — the good and the bad — should only help him.
“First of all, the maturity we’re seeing out of him this year is great,” Plott said of James. “The dedication — he’s maybe missed one or two days because of family stuff — he’s been here working. He’s putting the time in. He knows he’s going to have the opportunity to have a special season.”
Even with a mature approach, the quiet, reserved James still has the ability to joke around with his teammates.
“I’m excited,” he said in a post-practice interview last week. “I don’t want to take all the reps. I’ve got to give my boy Noah some. But I’m excited; I’m ready. We’re going to put on a show this year, most definitely.”
Tidwell, who was standing to the left of James during the interview, could see an even greater increase in carries this season than James. The 5-foot-6, 140-pounder posted 171 yards, including 21 on his only catch, and one touchdown on 41 touches last year.
After spending the past few months working out as much as he could, Tidwell is looking forward to seeing an expanded role this season.
“I’m just ready to play and hit someone,” he said.
While there are several others besides James and Tidwell in the mix for carries — including Jahseim Henry, Eli Jernigan and the Morris twins, Harlin and Javier — there’s a good chance Thomas also sees a sizable increase in his rushing attempts. The rising senior quarterback, who's listed at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, had 83 carries last fall for 215 yards and three scores.
Having such a diverse group of backs who can carry the ball will be key for Woodland’s chances of piling up non-region wins and challenging for a playoff spot in the six-team Region 7-AAAAA.
“It’s very important,” Plott said. “Up to this point, we’ve relied heavily on the run. It’s been really important to have workhorse-type guys that we can roll in there and use. Even our quarterback right now, J.T., we’re not afraid to run him. He’s like having a fourth running back out there.”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter as much who gets the carries for the Wildcats. The key is for the backs to be able to move the chains in an efficient manner and eventually find the end zone.
That was a challenge at times last season, but with a more experienced offensive unit and more manageable schedule, there’s hope that this year’s rushing attack proves to be a dangerous weapon.
“Last year, we were all really young,” Thomas said. “I think we only had like four or five returning varsity guys, so it was a new experience. I think we took it on better than most people would, better than most people would have expected us to. I think this year, we’re really ready, we’re really prepared and we’re ready to do some damage.”