At the bottom of his game notes for the Sept. 2 Japan Football League contest pitting Robert D. Edgren at Zama American, Yokota coach Tim Pujol, who scouted the game, penned the following entry:
“Edgren No. 4, dangerous punt returner, dangerous receiver. Good speed. Good open-field runner.”
He had good reason. Zach Latimore, Edgren’s junior returner-receiver-safety, has only touched the ball 12 times, but the results have been enough to turn heads throughout Japan’s high school football establishment:
350 all-purpose yards.Two kick-return touchdowns.One punt return touchdown.Two interceptions.Of his receptions, one, a 35-yarder, set up the final touchdown in Edgren’s 25-0 shutout last Saturday of the American School In Japan. Another 35-yarder might have gone for the game-winning touchdown in Edgren’s 7-6 season-opening loss to Zama when the Trojans’ defense knocked him out of bounds at the 30.
And Latimore’s kickoff and punt returns for scores on back-to-back possessions turned a Nile C. Kinnick four-touchdown lead into a two-score game that Edgren eventually lost 42-19 on Sept. 9. Thus, the Eagles could easily be 2-1 as opposed to 1-2.
“He provides a rallying point,” first-year Edgren coach Chris Waite said. “My players understand, he can make a big play at any moment, and they’re essentially not out of the game even when they’re down.”
Waite’s Eagles will have Latimore in tow for their next contest, at 1 p.m. Saturday at Yokota, which Edgren hasn’t beaten since the first game of the 1999 season.
Pujol’s Panthers have benefitted from special teams play over the years, opening the 2001 and 2002 Rising Sun Bowls with kick-return touchdowns by Mike Chamberlain. Still, Pujol says, special teams can be taken for granted.
“Sometimes, it’s easy to brush or glaze over your coverage and special teams,” he said. “It can be a big part of the game. He (Latimore) gives Edgren an extra edge, not just on special teams but as a receiver and in the secondary.”
It could easily be said the best way to avoid Latimore hurting a team is to kick it away from him. ASIJ tried that on opening kickoff last Saturday, but a wind gust blew the ball into Latimore’s hands. Sure enough, he returned it 90 yards for the only points the Eagles needed.
Even if a team doesn’t kick to him, “you still have to make sure you have sound coverage from your kick-coverage team, guys who can get off the line of scrimmage and downfield at the snap of the ball, get enough hangtime and if you get down there, make the tackle,” Pujol said.
Despite his potential dangers, a team can’t focus on just one player, said outgoing Kinnick coach Matt Martinez.
“They’re a strong team,” he said. “He’s an added bonus. If you concentrate on him solely, you take away from the fact that they've gotten better overall. But if you don’t pay attention to him, he’ll burn you. You have to know when he’s on the field. He has big-play ability and that makes him such a good athlete.”
So how does a team deal with such an X-factor?
“Not taking any plays off,” Martinez said.
Such flattering talk must feel warm and fuzzy to a guy like Waite, at the helm of an Edgren team that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2002.
“It’s good to have someone the other coaches are looking at,” Waite said. “Obviously, I don’t want them looking at him too much; I want to get the ball in his hands as much as I possibly can.”