Guyer head coach John Walsh has long been up front about his running back situation this season.
It’s the best group he’s ever had as a head coach, and with Guyer’s history of running the ball effectively, that’s quite a statement.
Last Friday, when Guyer met rival Lake Dallas in a key District 5-4A game, the Wildcats were without starting running back D.J. Breedlove and were forced to rely on Richard Whitaker to tote the majority of the team’s carries, and that was not a problem.
Whitaker finished with 138 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries in Guyer’s 63-13 thrashing of the Falcons. It was the first start of a career that has taken an odd path.
Whitaker, who turned 17 in September, is a young senior. In fact, he was born days apart from Breedlove, who is a junior.
Perhaps that explains Whitaker’s slow ascent to the varsity level, where he’s playing for the first time this season.
“It’s a first for me — I’ve had plenty of lineman or defensive players play JV as a junior and be all-district as a senior — but it’s rare you have a wide receiver, quarterback or running back do that. We saw the talent coming though,” Walsh said.
Whitaker, in fact, was on the “B” team as a freshman at Guyer before splitting time as a sophomore on junior varsity and being the featured back for the JV squad as a junior.
This season, he’s been thrust into important reps at the varsity level and has shined. He’s the second-leading rusher on the team behind quarterback Jerrod Heard with 595 yards and nine touchdowns. He had four rushing scores in a win over Trophy Club Byron Nelson two weeks ago after Breedlove went down early with an ankle injury that forced him to miss last week’s game against Lake Dallas.
So it’s been quite a couple of weeks for Whitaker, who has exploded onto the scene after getting a pretty even split in carries with Breedlove through the first five games of the year.
“It’s been pretty exciting,” Whitaker said. “I feel pretty good knowing that I can finally get people’s attention and I’m not just a second-stringer. I can step up to that level and compete.”
The reason Breedlove and Whitaker have been such a good combination for Guyer’s backfield is the fact that they have varied running styles. Whitaker, who’s taller, is more of a long-striding, downhill runner, while Breedlove is the shifty, elusive runner.
“The good thing about watching him [Whitaker] run is he’ll make contact with someone and he’s always going to fall forward about three or four yards,” said running backs coach Oschlor Flemming. “He likes to deliver a blow. He’s usually the hammer, not the nail. … He doesn’t have the size of a big back, but he plays like one.”
While he might have entered the season viewed by outsiders as Breedlove’s backup, Whitaker has quickly debunked any such thoughts.
And while Walsh and his staff knew they had a talented back in Whitaker, they still needed to see what he could do under the bright lights of varsity football.
“We truly believed that they could complement each other 50-50,” Walsh said. “There was still a question on that being JV ball, though. How would he react on playing on Friday nights? Would he look as effective? And the answer is yes. He’s passed all the tests.”
With Breedlove likely to return from his one-game absence Friday against Wichita Falls Rider, Whitaker will still be very much in the mix, like he has been all season.
“The word ‘backup’ doesn’t fit him,” Heard said. “When he gets on the field, what he does is big-time. He’s improved a lot.”
Having two quality runners in the backfield is a good problem to have, Flemming said.
He referred back to the 2010 season, when Guyer lost in the Class 5A Division II state championship game with a true workhorse running back in Treavon Walton.
This year, Flemming knows he has more capable players who are ready to be called upon, and that includes sophomore Anthony Taylor, who scored three touchdowns in his varsity debut against Lake Dallas.
“We plan on having a 16-game season, so we have to have two guys to get the job done,” Flemming said. “Back in 2010, I had Treavon, and come Week 13 or 14 we were patching him together just trying to get him through the game. That’s the biggest advantage of having two guys to rely on.”
It also helps Whitaker and Breedlove feed off each other’s success.
“It helps us practice and play harder,” Whitaker said. “You could say it is a friendly competition because when he scores it drives me to go score too.”
Now that he’s succeeding at a high level for one of the state’s premier 4A programs, Whitaker has gone from a B-teamer as a freshman to a guy who could suddenly find himself earning a scholarship to play college football, as he’s garnered plenty of interest from coaches coming to look at other players.
Walsh told Flemming to go ahead and start putting together a highlight film on his “No. 2 back” just for that reason, and Flemming was happy to do it.
“It’s great. You get into this job not for the money, but for the kids,” Flemming said. “And to see a kid go from a B-team kid to JV and work his way to maybe getting a scholarship, that’s why you do the job. That’s the satisfaction of being a coach — watching a kid grow up like that.
“Good things happen to good people sometimes. He’s put his time in, and now his time is paying off.”
When asked why he didn’t considering switching schools to have a better chance to play before his senior year, the soft-spoken, humble Whitaker fired back without hesitation.
“I just liked being here,” Whitaker said. “People who didn’t play football, and even some that did on JV, were like, ‘you should move schools because you’re not going to get playing time.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to stay here. I’m going to work instead of just having it given to me.’
“I felt like I could get better by staying here.”
ADAM BOEDEKER can be reached at 940-566-6872. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .