CALCUTTA-Entering his second season as Beaver Local head football coach, Jeremy McElroy faced a murky situation at running back.
The Beavers lost all of their leading rushers from last years' 2-8 squad, along with every other skill position player. Stepping in to fill the void were a batch of players with almost no varsity experience.
"We entered fall practice planning to go with a running back by committee approach," McElroy said. "We had some inexperienced guys ready to step up but we weren't sure who was going to take the lead."
However, thanks to a big effort by sophomore Robert Johnston on Friday against Oak Glen, the picture is beginning to come into focus.
In just his second varsity start, Johnston seized the burden of lead running back, gliding for 233 yards on 38 carries in a 30-7 win that evened the Beavers record at 1-1.
"It felt really cool to be involved in a game like that after not playing on varsity very long," Johnston said. "The line did a great job and we were able to pass the ball enough to open up the running game. Everything played out perfectly."
Johnston split time with senior Morley Marsden in the opening game at Crestview, but Marsden went down with an injury against the Rebels, allowing Johnston to take most of the workload in week two.
"Even with Morley out, 38 carries was not the plan for Robert," McElroy said. "We had some other guys we were subbing in early on, but Robert got into a nice flow early and the rest of the game kind of flew by. I didn't realize until after the game how many carries and yards he had. It kind of snuck up on everybody."
After getting going with a 44-yard run in the second quarter, Johnston helped the Beavers control the ball for large chunks of time in the second half as they put the game away. The 30 points were more than Beaver Local scored in a game since a 35-7 win over Brookfield in the 2009 season finale.
"Moving the ball like we did built up a lot of confidence, not only in me but in everybody else on the sideline," Johnston said. "Especially coming off the Crestview game where we didn't play very well, it was a great morale boost."
Johnston spent last season playing almost exclusively on the jayvee team while senior Daniel Lattanzio led the Beavers on the ground. McElroy said he saw early signs that Johnston could be a contributor this season.
"I remember a freshman game against Howland last year," McElroy said. "They have been a tough opponent for us and we beat them 45-7 with Robert breaking off some long runs. What caught my eye was how smooth he looked running the ball and the long strides he took. He could break off 10 yards and it would seem like a short carry."
As 2012 progressed, McElroy knew Johnston and many of his fellow freshmen were going to see heavy playing time this season and began preparing accordingly.
"What I think helped Robert and the rest of the sophomores out was that we coached them like they were varsity players last year," McElroy said. "Sometimes when you have freshmen they are a completely separate entity, but we gave these guys reps like they were going to be playing varsity minutes on Friday. I think that helped Robert be ready for his opportunity this year."
One area where the Beavers returned a wealth of experience was the offensive line, with every starter coming back. Johnston came to fall practice knowing he was going to be a big part of the offense. Having experienced players in front of him made the transition a comfortable one.
"Our line has been like a moving wall. Running behind them has made my first season a lot better so far," Johnston said. "I expected to have a pretty good season mainly because of them and the holes they can open up."
McElroy knows a long season-and in Johnston's case a long three years-still lies ahead and is not getting carried away by one game.
"You never want to put too much expectation on a young kid," McElroy said. "We hoped Robert would give us a spark coming into this year. So far he has and we hope it continues. It's a long process though and we just have to take it one week at a time."
Up next is Friday's game at East Palestine.