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Football: West's offense has adapted not just to survive, but to thrive
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West Forsyth quarterback Drew Southern drops back to pass during the Wolverines' game against Lambert on Oct. 19, 2018 at West Forsyth High School. - photo by Michael Chung

As his second-to-last year as an assistant coach at Lanier drew to a close, Shawn Cahill sat defeated with the rest of the Longhorns’ staff as they wondered about what could have been.

The 2015 Lanier football team was a strong one, with six Division I prospects manning the defense, including current Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown and LSU linebacker Tyler Taylor. The Longhorns worked to an 11-0 record, but in the second round, they suffered a frustrating 41-21 defeat to Northgate.

Lanier was a two-platoon team at that point, meaning there weren’t any players ready to play both ways. When the offense was out, those high-caliber athletes stood on the sidelines watching. It was a mistake that the entire coaching staff admitted to in that meeting.

“We sat down as a staff and (asked), ‘If we would have had these kids in the game, would we have won?’” Cahill said. “I always remembered that -- always having your best kids ready to go so if you need them, they're ready. That's one of the things that sticks in my mind.”

Now the head coach at West Forsyth, Cahill has been determined not to let the past repeat itself. After starting 1-5, the Wolverines have ascended up the Region 5-7A standings recently, and it’s partially come because of the coaching staff’s insistence on utilizing its personnel in as many ways as possible and adjusting roles as circumstances change – and not hesitating to do it.

At first, though, Cahill had to learn how to make those adjustments in a timely manner. He was figuring out his players and their capabilities during his first year at the helm last season, and that led to instances like waiting too long to have current Vanderbilt tight end Ben Bresnahan play safety.

During this past summer, the Wolverines all found themselves on double duty. Stephon Bland played running back and linebacker. Garrett Woodall took snaps at tight end and linebacker. Abe Camara, who’s been a staple at defensive back as expected, played at wideout. Cahill’s plan was to play them solely at primary positions early on, then have them on the field at all times when region play began.

“I had a hunch I was going to play receiver,” Camara said. “I had a little hunch just because of all the workouts. They needed somebody out there.”

Early on, it looked like Bland would be carrying the offense’s load at tailback, amassing 471 yards on 78 carries in the first two games, including 246 against Hewitt-Trussville (Ala.). But as teams began to catch on and load tacklers in the box, that strategy had to change for more reasons than just offensive efficiency.

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West Forsyth's Abe Camara hauls in a pass on his way to the end zone against Forsyth Central on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. - photo by Ben Hendren

“We could tell he was starting to get beat up,” Cahill said. “We kind of realized we needed to help the kid out a little bit. He responded but we said, ‘He's not going to be around if we don't do something right now.’”

The running game’s waning effectiveness, along with an injury to Jake Cummings, thrust Bland in at linebacker, where he’s filled in nicely, recording three sacks against Lambert last week. Bland is still taking carries occasionally on offense, but he’s also been put at receiver, his primary position in 2017.

But it also meant that the Wolverines needed to throw more, which was complicated by an injury to quarterback Blake Whitfield. Sophomore backup Drew Southern was young, and the Wolverines initially scaled things down as not to overwhelm him. After a 41-0 defeat to Milton in his first start, though, Cahill admitted that he could have given his passer a little more responsibility.

“I was a little nervous coming into the game,” Southern said. “We maybe could have done a little bit more. That was just a tough game for us, to brush that one off.”

Since then, Southern has been free to let loose, already eclipsing Whitfield with 627 yards passing over four games. That passing success has generated an odd feeling for Cahill, whose ground-and-pound attack has been West’s staple since he’s been there.

Even if he’s not always comfortable doing it, Cahill trusts offensive coordinator Chad Davenport with the play calls to the point where he hasn’t bothered replacing his headset that broke in the Milton game. And that might be a good thing for Cahill’s sanity: In the team’s 39-0 win over Forsyth Central, the Wolverines ran just two different passing plays for much of their calls, and it worked.

“I don't want to freak out when they're calling three or four pass plays in a row,” Cahill said. “I'm like, ‘Just let it go – see what happens with it.’ If somebody's got (a headset) and I need something, I'll just ask them.”

Just as he suspected, Camara has been a big part of those offensive plans. He logged a season-high 204 yards receiving last week. He was exhausted during West’s season opener against Camden, but he’s adjusted to the extra responsibility well, enough to keep his coach’s headset off for the foreseeable future.

“I was very tired, in that Camden game, specifically,” Camara said. “But I've learned to adjust -- you've got to play through it. You've got to play for your teammates.”