When the Coconino Panthers concluded the football season last fall, it appeared there would be a major hole in the team’s offensive game.
Zach Bennett rushed for more 1,200 yards and scored 15 rushing touchdowns in nine games last season, garnering him 4A Conference Offensive Player of the Year as the Panthers reached the playoff quarterfinals.
The returning Coconino rushers will look to make up for that production in a collective effort.
“We have a big hole to fill, but I think we’re capable of it. It won’t be solely on one person to do everything,” said Tyson Fousel, a rising senior who ran for 593 yards and five scores himself last season.
Fousel is one part of a running back quartet -- with Christian Conde, Jonathan Jaramillo and Cooper French -- that Panthers head coach Mike Lapsley expects to divvy up the carries and other responsibilities on the field.
Since spring practice began at the end of the 2020-21 school year, each of the running backs has worked in practice to secure their spot in the starting lineup. Lapsley said each of the four has watched film of Bennett and other successful rushers and attempted to emulate some of those skills.
Each of the current running backs also watch each other in individual drills, offer tips and sometimes even try to “one-up each other.”
The four players realize they are teammates first, though, and recognize that the success of their partners in the backfield bodes well for not just themselves, but the team’s overall production.
“Sure, there’s competition to be the starter, but we’re not fighting. It’s all teamwork and we all want each other to succeed. Whoever is getting the most carries, we’re still going to root for each other,” French said.
Lapsley said regardless of who is deemed the starting back, each will have a role in the offense, depending on matchups and the game plan for a particular week.
He said each player has their own skills unique from the others, based on size, strength and other physical abilities.
“Their role in the backfield is constantly evolving. Each is showing me something different almost all the time, so figuring out where to put everyone when is the challenge as a coach,” he said.
“It’s going to be a whole bunch of different players rotating in and out, guys doing things they hadn’t before to get more in-depth in the chart and playbook,” added Jaramillo.
Regardless of who breaks away from the pack, there are high stakes for all the returning players on the Coconino football team. The Panthers are back-to-back defending Grand Canyon region champions and will look to have sustained success. Much of that will lie in the hands of the Panthers’ rushers, as they look forward to the team’s first game on Sept. 10 against 4A runner-up Cactus.