tampabay.com

Same running plan

The Indians plan to stick with what works - a solid ground game.

By JIM REESE
Published August 25, 2006


EAST BAY - East Bay has been a ball-control, no-nonsense, move-the-chains type team since Brian Thornton began coaching there 12 years ago. And this year should be no different.

"Most teams know pretty much what we are going to do in a game," Thornton said. "They expect us to run, run, run."

East Bay gained nearly five times as much yardage on the ground as in the air in 2005, but that number is somewhat deceiving. As in other years, when they threw, the ratio of completions to touchdowns was high because most teams primarily defend the run when playing against them. The Indians completed only 12 passes in 2005 but five went for touchdowns.

This year, Thornton expects to see improvement on offense with experienced veterans returning at key positions, while on defense the task has begun to replace key players with eager newcomers and some returning starters.

THROUGH THE AIR: Junior Rex Ballenger (5-9, 150) will return as the starting quarterback, coming off a 5-5 regular season before losing to state champion Lakeland in the first round of the playoffs. Completing 11-of-24 last year for 170 yards, Ballenger had four of his completions go for scores, all to tight end Chip Burnett.

Burnett also was on the scoring end of a halfback option pass, giving him five receptions for the year, all for touchdowns. Burnett returns and will be the go-to guy.

ON THE GROUND: Ballenger's job is to run the wishbone offense and manage the game, reading his keys to either hand off, keep or pitch.

"He's a smart kid," Thornton said. "He knows our offense well and doesn't make many mistakes."

East Bay's running game should improve as experienced ball carriers return. It will be tough to replace Calvin McGruder's 895 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, but halfbacks Joey Stephens and Ryan Stubbs and fullback Aaron Freeman give Thornton solid performers to run the wish-bone. Stephens gained 457 yards and scored six touchdowns in 2005 and should see a lot of carries this year. On the offensive line, Justin Kaminsky and Travis Combs will open the holes.

DEFENSE: East Bay, always tough on defense, gave up 249.7 yards per game in 2005, ranking them 12th in the county. Key players return in senior linebackers Richard Roberti and Joe Blum. Lining up behind them at defensive back are returning starters Tyler Snell and Ryan Stubbs.

"We have experience but no doubt we'll miss players like Matt McNabb and Andrew Hayes who were the backbone of our defense last year, but I feel these young players will step up and do a good job," Thornton said.

On the line, Darion Greene and Lawrence Mathis will defend against the run.