High school football: Sharing the load at West

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 30, 2021

By Mike London

MOUNT ULLA — West Rowan’s rotating senior running backs Cayleb Brawley and Akin Robinson don’t have monster stats individually, but put them together and you’ve got 113 carries for 697 yards and seven touchdowns.

In other words, running the ball is no longer something the Falcons do just to kill time between pass plays. Brawley and Robinson (his first name is pronounced Ah-keen) are combining for more than 6 yards per carry for a West team that has won its last three games and is 2-0 in the South Piedmont Conference.

“Our running game is picking up and you’ll see the stats picking up for those two,” West head coach Louis Kraft said. “It’s a great luxury for us to have two good senior backs. A big part of their rising production is we’ve got some continuity on our offensive line now. We’ve got six guys we can interchange in five spots, and they’re getting used to working with each other.  We’ve also got an experienced senior tight end (Ben Sweet). We feel like we can throw for 250 yards most Friday nights, and if we can sprinkle in 200 from the running backs, then we’ve got something.”

So much has happened since COVID appeared that it’s easy to forget that Brawley was close to stardom in 2019. That was a run-heavy West team that relied on the legs of Jalen Houston and Brawley. There was an epic night against East Rowan that Houston and Brawley both topped 200 rushing yards. Brawley got 33 carries in that game.

Brawley would’ve had a 1,000-yard sophomore season, but he was injured in the Falcons’ second-round playoff win against Crest. He missed most of that game as well as the following week’s loss to Charlotte Catholic. He finished with 979 rushing yards.

“His biggest asset is vision,” Kraft said. “He’s not the prototypical blazer, but he gets everything he can on every play. We don’t have many TFLs (tackles for loss) when the runs it.”

In the shortened 2020 season that wasn’t played until the spring of 2021, Brawley and Robinson got 86 carries apiece. Now that’s sharing the load.

Brawley was healthy and ready to go, but the Falcons just couldn’t run the ball last spring. He had 224 rushing yards, less than 3 yards per carry.

Robinson was mostly a jayvee star in 2019, but he got his feet wet on the varsity with 20 carries.

Last spring, he broke enough long jaunts, especially against Statesville and Davie, to get 430 yards on 86 carries, but it was still difficult to move the ball consistently on the ground.

“We learned early last spring that we couldn’t run effectively,” Kraft said. “We were very young up front, and with such a short season, there wasn’t time to fix it. So we leaned heavily on the pass. Even this season, even with improved line play, it’s still really easy for us to call a pass.”

That’s because West quarterback Noah Loeblein has thrown 12 touchdown passes and already has passed for 200-plus yards four times.

Kraft said quite a few running plays that are called turn into pass plays. If Loeblein sees that a running play isn’t going to work, if the numbers in the box don’t look favorable, he’ll try to make something happen through the air.

When they do get the ball, Robinson and Brawley are making their chances count. Brawley has 266 yards on 66 carries, while Robinson has 436 yards on 47. Brawley is a steady workhorse, but Robinson is more of a home-run hitter. He can go the distance at any time. He can get 40 or 50 in a hurry.

“I bring speed, excitement, energy,” Robinson said. “I get the crowd hyped. They like to see big plays, long runs and celebrations. I’ll even celebrate with the linemen on a pancake block.”

Robinson broke loose for touchdown sprints of 30 and 57 yards in Friday’s 55-16 win against South Rowan, so there were several celebrations.

“On the first touchdown, Peter (Williams-Simpson) made a great block on the corner, and I just ran by the safety,” Robinson said.

Brawley’s lone touchdown on Friday was a typical Brawley touchdown. Six yards.

“I’ve got experience and I’ve got heart,” Brawley said. “I’ve got good vision and above average speed. And even though I’m kind of short, I’m not afraid to block.”

On Friday, West accumulated 267 passing yards and netted 230 rushing yards. That’s only the second time this season that a Rowan team has topped 200 yards on the ground and in the air. Salisbury smashed Thomasville for 228 passing yards and 284 rushing yards.

That growing offensive balance and a run-stopping defense has West believing it can win the program’s first conference championship in a decade.

“We’ve definitely gotten better running the ball,” Brawley said. “Not only is the 0-line improved, we’ve got new formations and new plays that have helped. I’m lining up closer to the line of scrimmage.  I can see where the gap is quickly and make a cut for good yards.”

Added Robinson, “We knew what we were doing last season, but we’re making better adjustments now and trusting each other more. We’ve gotten better at moving on from a bad play. If someone messes up, they rid of it and move on to the next one.”

That’s called experience and maturity.

Those intangible ingredients are why the Falcons are confident now that they can run the ball against good teams.

A new wrinkle the Falcons have been working on lately is a two-back set in which they’ll have Robinson, who should surpass 1,000 career yards on Friday, and Brawley, who has 1,464 career rushing yards, on the field together.

Both are team-first players who are quick to credit teammates and coaches for success. Both have been the first to congratulate the other back on a touchdown run.

Both also understand what football means to West Rowan, to the school and to the community.

“We have a special tradition here,” said Brawley, whose grandfather, Tony, suited up for the Falcons. “You’re not just playing for yourself. You’re playing for everyone.”