He may not recall the exact game, but West Forsyth head football coach Shawn Cahill remembers the moment when he found the centerpiece for this year’s rushing attack.
It was late in Cahill’s first season as head coach and depth at the running back position was thin. The Wolverines opted to give Stephon Bland, one of their receivers, some carries. On one run, with plenty of defenders on him, Bland just wouldn’t go down, powering his 6-foot-1 frame forward.
“I was on the headset with (offensive coordinator Chad) Davenport and I said, 'That's our running back next year,’” Cahill said. “He was just moving the pile. He's going to keep fighting all the time. He's got that moxie thing about him.”
Bland, now a senior, made sure his coach’s confidence in him was not unfounded against Alabama powerhouse Hewitt-Trussville last week, rushing for 246 yards and two touchdowns and catching another. So far, Bland has been one of the county’s breakout skill position players, even in his first year running the ball on a full-time basis.
Bland played at receiver for the first two years of his high school career, and Cahill kept him there in 2017, the coach’s debut season at West. He and the rest of the coaching staff were just getting to know the players and wanted to see what their strengths were during game action before thinking about moving anybody around.
This season, though, West moved players not only to better suit its system, but also to provide better visibility to potential colleges. At this point, Bland has two games worth of good film at running back to give to prospective recruiters.
“We feel like with what we would do, it would fit better and help the kid out if they want to go play college football,” Cahill said. “We try to put them in a place where they can help us and they're going to have a chance to succeed at what they're doing.”
Despite him being a good receiver, West’s coaching staff made the decision to move Bland, viewing him as a linebacker playing running back due to his strength. He was thrilled but knew the challenges that came with it.
“I was really excited,” Bland said. “Last year, we were a run-heavy team so I thought I'd get some more touches. I had to start being more physical. It was a lot different, being in the backfield and getting the ball a lot more. It was just a big adjustment.”
Bland worked in the weight room, bulking up from 200 pounds to 210 over the offseason in preparation for his new role. During West’s season opener against Camden County, he did what many new running backs tend to do – run away from the mass of defenders and continually bounce outside the tackles.
But when watching the film from the opener, one of the things the running back found out he had to do was slow down. Reading the holes that his offensive line opens for him has been Bland’s biggest challenge so far.
Game two did not start out well for Bland or for West as a whole. Hewitt-Trussville returned the game’s opening kickoff for a touchdown, and on the Wolverines’ first offensive play, there was less than nothing for Bland to take advantage of.
“We forgot to block somebody, the biggest kid on the field, and he just runs into the backfield and kills him,” Cahill said. “It would have been very easy for him to go, ‘This isn’t a lot of fun.’”
Eventually, though, Bland began to see the holes he patiently waited for, and the yards he gained helped West to its thrilling near-upset.
Despite their 0-2 record, the Wolverines are confident in what they have going forward, thanks in part to what happened on the field last week. As a team captain, Bland’s leadership role has been more apparent, and on his current trajectory, his influence will only get larger.
“It felt good,” Bland said of his performance against Hewitt-Trussville. “It gave me some confidence. It gave our O-line more confidence, because (on) their D-line, they had some guys. We felt like we really can run through them.
“I feel like if we go out there and play like that every game, we’ll be fine.”