As Forsyth Central offensive coordinator Dustin Canon observed the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks at Wednesday’s pre-dawn practice on the dew-covered Bulldog Stadium turf, he could see a little bit of himself.
Canon, a 2009 graduate of Central and a former starting signal-caller for the team he now coaches, is leading an option attack that has been successful to start the year, with optimism peaking after Central’s 42-7 romp of Chamblee to snap a 16-game losing streak. The offense, while new to some of the players and a sharp contrast to what every other county team runs, is not that new to Canon.
“There's a lot of similarities (to what I ran),” Canon said. “As a player, you always draw from when you played and your experiences. That's kind of really all you've got to draw from. I know what it’s supposed to feel like, when things are going well and when things aren’t going well.”
Central has historically had success running some form of the option. The switch to the spread last year yielded some strong individual results from quarterback Brad Thiltgen and running back Devran Orsan, but the coaches quickly found themselves in over their heads, and the team still finished 0-10 on the year.
“We didn't have the expertise to run the spread offense as offensive coaches,” Central head coach Frank Hepler said. “We went out and tried to learn it and tried to run it some. Most of us were wing-T guys or option guys, but we thought we'd do that last year to keep up with the Joneses -- that's the way football is moving.”
Discussions to change back to an option attack began in the middle of the 2017 season, but Hepler and his staff didn’t think changing the whole offense midseason was fair to the players. Instead, Central began to sprinkle in some option concepts into the offense, and when the season ended, coaches began to meet with players to discuss the plans.
“We looked at it and said, ‘Well, we have a good set of offensive and defensive linemen.’” Hepler said. “We've got some good older kids, good younger kids and you've got to have good linemen to run this offense. From there, we said, ‘Our team is highly intelligent.’ To run this offense, you have to be intelligent. We just felt like we had the pieces to do it.”
Canon and other offensive coaches have taken trips to Kennesaw State and Georgia Tech, two teams with successful option attacks, to observe and draw inspiration from how those collegiate programs operated and how they practiced. Changing the offense in two consecutive years in a row might look like a lack of continuity at face value, but the Bulldogs don’t see it that way. To them, the transition was not only necessary, but seamless.
“I don't know if it was difficult because every year you kind of have a new team,” Canon said. “You don’t have the same guys. Would it be nice to run the same offense? Oh yeah. But every year is a new year, and you have to develop your offense around the weapons that you have.”
With first-string quarterback Hunter Cagle currently out with an injury sustained in the Meadowcreek scrimmage, the running game has become even more important. Against Chamblee, sophomore Solomon Gates and junior Devon Taylor stepped in to relieve some pressure off the Bulldogs, rushing for a combined 112 yards and four touchdowns. Hepler has been impressed by them, as well as with his young fullbacks.
“They've popped out of nowhere,” he said. “A couple of them are younger kids so we didn't know much about them. They've done a great job.”
Running the option requires all the pieces on the line to work together, from the quarterback making reads to the linemen blocking up front. Central hopes that mentality that will extend far beyond just the offensive side of the ball.
“Everyone's got to do a job and everybody's got to be selfless and work together,” Canon said. “Our kids have a done a great job of buying into the team aspect. It's a mix of being selfless and a mix of experience and some new guys just excited to get their opportunity.”