After practice on Wednesday, Coconino Panthers football head coach Mike Lapsley told his star running back to make sure the team was already locked in for the next day's practice.
Junior running back Zach Bennett is doing more for his team than just putting up big numbers with his ground game. He's an example of how hard work often translates to wins, giving his team motivation to get stronger, faster and more sound while supporting them on each and every play.
Bennett, who leads his team with 998 yards rushing so far this season, is getting a lot of support back as well.
“The offensive line is everything for me," said Bennett, whose 998 yards has him at No. 9 in the state in total rushing yards and second in the category in the 4A Conference. "Any given day that the line plays well, it allows the rest of our offense to play well. Without the line doing good things, things don’t go as they should, and those boys do a lot for this team and I am very grateful for them.”
Bennett is coming off one of his most important and impressive performances of his career, helping his team overcome a deficit for the first time this season last week in a 34-27 win over Grand Canyon Region opponent Prescott by running for three touchdowns for the second week in a row to go with 174 yards.
Coconino was down 7-0 after suffering its first scoreless first quarter of the season and struggling to generate offense. At halftime, the Panthers faced a six-point deficit.
Bennett kept pushing, jumping up after plays with energy to show Prescott that he was in no way beat yet. He went on to give his team the lead and then the insurance score in the second half after Beau Gomez tied it at 20-all on a 1-yard TD run.
The stud back also gets a lot of help from his buddies in the backfield. Although the numbers don't always show it, Coconino's depth in the backfield has been a large part of the Bennett's -- and the team's -- overall success this season.
“My other wing back, Bailey McCauslin, I know he’s got my back always," Bennett said Wednesday after practice. "And when teams start focusing in on me, it allows him to spring open and then they have to play true defense. They can’t just slide to my side. That helps me a lot.”
The Panthers, owners of a 6-0 record for just the second time in program history entering Friday, boast six different ball carriers who have scored a touchdown this season, including both McCauslin and Aaron Avitia at four. Bennett leads the list with 17 to go with one receiving touchdown, making him the player with the most total TDs this season so far in the Grand Canyon Region.
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“I know coach loves running the ball, so I am happy he’s here. Some coaches go to throwing the ball all the time. So it benefits me," Bennett said.
The benefits comprise of a recent nomination for his game against Prescott that landed him as a recipient of the Week 7 Ed Doherty Award Nomination.
The Panthers debuted their young back last season during a resurgent year that ended on a 7-3 overall mark. Bennett finished 2018 with 1,210 rushing yards and 15 rushing TDs.
DOWNHILL RUNNER GOES UPHILL
After the football season last year, Bennett played basketball for the Panthers on the JV team, and after that went to the weight room with his gridiron teammates.
“We just focused a lot on getting stronger so that we could put that together with technique on the field and make what we did last year even better this year so we can try to shoot further," Bennett said.
Meanwhile, Lapsley and his coaching staff had ideas for Bennett in the offseason. They knew Bennett was patient and could find holes to work with and had the moves to make defenders miss him. They knew he was good at using his blockers. But Lapsley wanted Bennett to use his strength in new ways in 2019.
“What we noticed was his work ethic. He became stronger and put on more weight, a good weight for him. We increased his strength tremendously, both upper and lower body," Lapsley said. "Some of my play designs, I wanted to see him get more downhill. We know he has always been a shifty runner, but I wanted to see how he responded to that, because his field vision is amazing. But we wanted to see what happens when he lowers his shoulders and gets those two or three extra yards. I think he’s liking that because it makes him more of a dynamic runner.”
It's becoming clear Bennett's work is paying off, as he set records for the team along with season highs. Yet, it is the chemistry between the running back and his linemen that's paying dividends.
“When someone is down, we try to lift them up, and when someone is up, we try to lift them even higher. We have our backs out there, and it’s awesome," Bennett said.