Running backs key winning teams' attacks
Stars and Stripes
The DODDS-Europe football ranks have been whittled to an elite group of eight teams. And those remaining all have one thing in common – outstanding running backs.
The scope and frequency of roster turnover in Europe can make it challenging to develop prospects into traditional drop-back quarterbacks, and even harder to develop the kind of rapport between passers and receivers necessary to stage an effective air attack.
As such, DODDS-Europe teams often turn to the ground, where raw talent and fundamentals go a much longer way. Linemen block and create holes; running backs accept handoffs and run through them.
Here’s a look at this weekend’s four semifinals – two each in Division I and Division II - and the runners that will attempt to carry their teams into the Nov. 2 European title games.
Patch at Ramstein
Patch: The Panthers elbowed into the postseason through sheer force of will and determination – much the way running back Ethan Logan powers his way into the end zone.
Patch does not have an explosive offense by any measure. The team averaged just 14 points per game in a 2-3 season, and scored just six combined points over a two-game October stretch.
But the Panthers make up for mediocre production with off-the-charts persistence. And the hard-nosed Logan points the way.
A punishing Vilseck defense held Logan to 54 yards rushing Oct. 5, but Logan still forced in a late third-quarter touchdown that held up for a season-saving 6-0 win. He found more room a week later against winless Lakenheath, and made good with 121 yards and two touchdowns as the Panthers scratched into the postseason with a 28-27 victory.
Ramstein: Appropriately, DODDS-Europe’s biggest school isn’t satisfied with one elite running back. The Royals boast three in Tevin Johnson, Santee Jackson and Young Jae Oh.
Ramstein’s three backs each bring distinct styles to the team’s offense. Jackson has great speed in turning corners and winning sideline foot races. Oh is slippery and elusive in space. Johnson is a hard-hitting power back who inflicts more pain than he absorbs.
As Ramstein’s undefeated regular season attests, this creates way too many problems for defenses to manage. Though the team runs almost constantly, its offense remains unpredictable. And since most defenses are limited in positional depth, opposing tacklers tend to get fatigued far quicker than the Royals’ alternating cast of ballcarriers.
Kaiserslautern at Wiesbaden
Kaiserslautern: The Raiders needed an offensive catalyst to chase off the lingering malaise of two winless seasons. They found it when Kyle Moore arrived.
Kaiserslautern quickly converted the former Heidelberg wide receiver to running back, and the shift has paid off spectacularly. He picked up 166 yards and three touchdowns on a scant nine carries in a comeback 29-26 win over Patch on Sept. 21.
The Raiders have a sophisticated passing game built around quarterback Tristan Dailey and receiver Antwan Haynes. But Moore is the linchpin of the offense. His presence in the backfield frees up space for the air attack, and the skills and instincts picked up from his days as a wideout make him a worthy target for Dailey when needed.
In short, Moore makes the Raider offense go.
Wiesbaden: The Warriors are packed with speedy athletes, from quarterback Reymoi Lewis to 100-meter sprinting champion Anthony Little. But the go-to ballcarrier in the team’s deep offense is senior Daivon Poole. And that’s with good reason.
Though his individual stats are muted by the Warriors’ many other options, the reliable runner has been instrumental in Wiesbaden’s turnaround from winning one game in 2012 to hosting a European semifinal game in 2013. He gathered 87 yards and scored a key touchdown as the Warriors kicked off their season with a 21-12 win over Patch. And he swung a crucial Oct. 4 game against Kaiserslautern into his team’s win column, piling up 148 yards on just 15 carries and scoring twice in a 42-34 homecoming win.
Hohenfels at Bitburg
Hohenfels: Perhaps no single DODDS-Europe player is as responsible for his team’s success as Tiger running back David Vidovic. The junior has an impeccable skill set for the position: he runs over and through tackles, churns his legs until the whistle blows and has enough breakaway speed to turn a flash of daylight into a long touchdown run.
Though defenses key on him constantly, Vidovic has yet to have a bad game this season. His season-low for rushing yards is the 160 he posted on Sept. 7 against Schweinfurt/Bamberg, but he scored four touchdowns in that game. He’s scored multiple touchdowns five times in six games this year, including the three he posted in last week’s quarterfinal win over International School of Brussels.
Vidovic will face by far his toughest challenge to date this week against Bitburg. If the Barons can slow him down, they’ll be the first.
Bitburg: The Tiger defense should have at least as much trouble with the Barons’ pair of feature running backs as Bitburg will with Vidovic.
Much like Ramstein, the four-time defending champion Barons don’t shroud their offensive playbook in mystery. Bitburg will run incessantly and dare opponents to stand in their way.
Senior Kenny Love and junior Larry Jackson are not overwhelming physical presences on the field: Love is 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, Jackson checks in at 5-9 and 180. But both are disciples of Bitburg’s unparalleled strength and conditioning program, and they routinely bowl over the beefy defenders up front to feast on slender secondaries. Just as often, however, Love and Jackson never have to bother – the pair runs behind an enormous and disciplined offensive line that might be Europe’s best.
SHAPE at Ansbach
SHAPE: If it leads to yards and points on a football field, Conner Manning can provide it.
The versatile Spartan running back scored this season in every way available to an offensive player. He caught a 53-yard score in SHAPE’s 35-0 win over Rota, and threw a 55-yard touchdown to Austen Eperjesi in a 43-14 win over Baumholder. In between, there were a lot of good old-fashioned rushing scores.
Manning was at his best when his team needed him most. He ran for a 2-yard touchdown in overtime to give SHAPE a 14-8 win over AFNORTH on Sept. 14, then sparked last weekend’s 20-9 quarterfinal win over Vicenza with the only score of the first half and sealed it with a late insurance touchdown.
Ansbach: No returning DODDS-Europe player has enjoyed a breakout 2013 to rival that of Cougar running back Dorian Jones. The junior was a productive player a year ago when given opportunities, but saw the bulk of the carries go to senior star DeMar Flake. There’s nobody standing in his way now.
His season started with a solid 65-yard, one-touchdown season-opening performance in a rout of Schweinfurt/Bamberg on Sept. 14. But as the competition grew tougher, so did Jones. He took a staggering 43 handoffs Sept. 21 against Hohenfels, piling up 266 yards and four touchdowns as the Cougars handled Vidovic’s Tigers 42-28. Efforts like that soon became the norm for Jones; he totaled 190 yards and three touchdowns in Ansbach’s 51-12 quarterfinal win over Baumholder last weekend.