tampabay.com

Armwood doesn't miss a step

With top back out, Hawks turn to their many alternate sources for big yardage.

By JOEY KNIGHT
Published September 15, 2006


SEFFNER - After years of begrudgingly bearing the "one-dimensional" stereotype, Armwood's offense finally is showing the ability to go deep.

Into its pool of ball carriers.

While 2005 rushing leader Eric Smith nurses torn elbow ligaments suffered in the season opener, the aura of formidability around the top-ranked Hawks' triple-option attack has suffered nary a fracture.

Smith - receiving letters from schools such as Florida, Southern California and Notre Dame - is likely out for the year. The rest of Armwood's offense, meanwhile, is out for something more: to prove how potent - and balanced - it can be without its top rusher.

"There's no way you lose a player like that and don't lose something," said Hawks offensive coordinator Chris Taylor, whose 3-0 club hosts No. 8 Jefferson in tonight's nationally televised showdown.

"But we have a lot of really good, competitive young men. And although we lose something ... we gain something when somebody else brings their talent to the offense."

While Smith's power and field vision may be irreplaceable, his yardage totals apparently aren't. With their 1,000-yard rusher out, the Hawks are averaging 317 total yards and 32.3 points - figures which likely would be even higher if coach Sean Callahan hadn't substituted liberally in blowouts against Durant and Plant City.

"We've never had our offense focused fully around one player," Taylor said.

Senior fullback Marquise Branton, who had emerged as the primary ball carrier even before Smith's injury, continues to flourish (38 carries, 297 yards, three touchdowns). Fleet senior Deondre Kyles (14 carries, 138 yards, two TDs) has brought a new element - 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash - to the running back spot.

Throw in the mobility and proficiency of senior quarterback Justin Hickman (131 rushing yards, 209 passing), and the Hawks are steamrolling, not sputtering.

"We've improved," said Callahan, whose club outscored Durant and Plant City by a combined 78-3. "We're starting to throw the ball, we're starting to catch the ball."

Hickman (13-for-20) got untracked last week at Plant City as the Hawks threw more passes against the Raiders (14) than they did in the first two regular-season games combined (10). When Hickman opts to run, he averages 5.7 yards.

"Hickman's had to be patient because I've got five new offensive lineman, all brand-new receivers," Callahan said. "He's shown a level of patience that most high school kids really (wouldn't)."

If Hickman can keep defenses honest with the periodic big pass play, then Branton, Kyles and the backs who occasionally spell them become even more effective.

Though smaller (6-foot, 220 pounds) than all-state predecessor Kalvin Bailey, Branton, who has received a scholarship offer from Middle Tennessee, is widely considered the better blocker. Kyles, meanwhile, is the fastest tailback the Hawks have ever had, Taylor said.

"While Deondre is no Eric Smith," Taylor added, "Eric Smith is no Deondre."

And the Hawks offense, it seems, is no less proficient.