We are one week away from the first Friday night of the high school football season in Kansas. KMAJ-AM will count to the first game of the season with the Topeka 7 football previews. Today, we look at the Washburn Rural Junior Blues.
For Washburn Rural head coach Steve Buhler and his Junior Blues, last season took a drastic turn September 8.
In a 31-7 loss to 6A Centennial League foe Manhattan, then-junior quarterback Jordan White went down with a leg injury that sidelined him for four weeks. Washburn Rural had a reliable backup in Michael Schurig, but he did not fit Buhler’s option offense.
Buhler and the coaching staff had to reinvent the wheel for his young team. They changed their entire offensive scheme to fit around their new drop back passer. Schurig would go on to throw for 1346 yards and 10 touchdowns in his seven starts as starter.
“It was such a change in philosophy when Jordan went down,” Buhler said. “We were such a run-based offense, option offense with him, even though he could through the football. And when he went down Michael Schurig was more of a pocket passer. Within seven days, the next ball game, we switched the entire offense into an emphasis on the passing game, and it worked for us. Michael did a great job and it helped us win some games late in the year, but to be honest with you it kind of took us out of what we had been working towards as far as building the style of program we wanted to build.”
After finishing 7-4 in 2016 and advancing to the 6A state quarterfinals, the Junior Blues took a step back last year, finishing 4-5 and exiting the first round of playoffs after a five-hour bus ride to Garden City.
“We were disappointed, obviously,” the former Rossville coach said. “The year before making the playoffs, couple rounds deep into the playoffs, I know the kids were looking forward to that again. Last year, trying to get that far, we hit some early season injuries that really put a snap in the consistency and the continuity of the season. It really just didn’t pan out the way we thought [it would].”
In 2018, with White returning at quarterback for his senior season, Washburn Rural will go back to their option offense in hopes to regain their success from 2016.
Buhler believes the experience of last year will help propel his juniors and seniors, many who saw playing time last year as sophomores and juniors, to new heights.
“I think the biggest thing coming into this season is just seeing the intensity and the focus that we have with the upperclassmen from last year,” the six-year Junior Blues head coach said. “I think everyone was disappointed with last year, but we’ve seen better attendance with summer weights and offseason workouts. We’ve seen more consistent attendance with the guys and the emotion, the atmosphere around practice has been really good.”
White will lead this offense after rushing for 262 yards and passing for 123 yards in five games.
Instead of making White a traditional drop back passer, Washburn Rural will rely on White to make plays with his feet.
“We tried to make him more of a polished, drop back, pocket kind of guy just to refine some short passing game that we like to do,” Buhler said. “But to be honest with you we worked at it and he does so many things so well that this year we’re kind of hands off. We’ve kind of tailored the offense a little bit more to him moving in the pocket a little bit, letting him get out, and we’re just going to let Jordan be Jordan.”
“It was one of those situations where I think I over coached, and we tried to overdo it with his skills. This year we’re going to kind of let him relax and let him play.”
Returning in the backfield for White is junior running back Jaylen Carter. As a sophomore splitting carries with then-senior Tyler Cummings, Carter led the team in rushing with 493 yards and five touchdowns. Carter also caught 18 passes for 149 yards. Now as the featured back, Carter looks to add to his totals and standout in Buhler’s rushing attack.
When White does drop back to throw, he will have senior Preston Williams at wide receiver. Williams hauled in 36 catches for 560 yards and five touchdowns as a junior.
The biggest concern for Buhler and his staff is in the trenches with his offensive line: “We’ve got some really good lineman, but we are light in the pants compared to everybody else in the 6A level.”
Buhler hopes his offensive scheme will help his offensive line create angles and win battles upfront to make up for their lack of size.
On defense, the team will have to replace All-Centennial League and All-City linebacker Jack Hamilton, the leader of Buhler’s defense the last two years. The team will also have to replace All-City defensive lineman Jacob Glendinning.
Nathan Gentine will move from defensive end to his more natural position of middle linebacker to fill the void left by Hamilton. Junior Michael McCartney has stood out this offseason according to Buhler and will start at outside linebacker.
Many of the players on this year’s team will play both offense and defense, a change in direction for the team. White and Carter will both play as defensive backs on defense. Senior JC Crowl will play both outside linebacker and H-back. Seniors Tyler Ladson and Bryce Hill will also make the transition from playing solely defense to playing both ways. Ladson, a linebacker, will get carries at running back this year, while Hill will play defensive tackle and guard.
After going 2-2 against Topeka High, Manhattan, and Junction City in 2016, Washburn Rural failed to beat their 6A conference rivals. With the changes made to the offensive playbook and many of his upperclassmen now playing both ways, Buhler hopes to flip the script in 2018.
“I think we can compete well with all of them. I’m not going to say we’re going to beat all three but I’d say we’re going to give ourselves a pretty good chance to knock off a couple of them.”
Washburn Rural starts the season on the road against Emporia on August 31. They will face Junction City and Manhattan in September, but play both at home. They will play Topeka High on October 5 at Hummer Sports Park before finishing the season with Highland Park and Seaman.
“You’re record may not be polished getting into the playoffs, but you’re not going to see better competition,” Buhler said of the Centennial League. “By the time week nine rolls around after playing those guys plus the remainder of the Centennial League, which is always good, you’re pretty battle tested. You’re ready to go.”
All stats were counted from game recap articles from the Topeka Capital-Journal