Premium Rush: East's run game not missing a step in 2012
If the past decade is any indication, Plano East football is fairly reliant on its running backs.
With the exception of 2007, the Panthers have favored the run eight of the last nine years -- peaking at 75 percent in 2003. The system also requires its rushers be versatile in both the blocking and passing game, evidenced by the gaudy reception totals compiled by East backs over the years.
The formula never deviates and thus far, the tandem of senior Ricky Ilodianya and junior Lionel Wills appear to be developing right on schedule.
"We know they've always been talented backs," said Johnny Ringo, East head coach. "We had our two senior running backs (Dante Taylor and Nathan Meadors) returning last year with a lot of experience, so we wanted [Ilodianya and Wills] to continue to develop on JV. Both did a great job and you've seen them take a huge step in their improvements over these first three games."
The two were joined at the hip in the backfield last season on JV, although it was Wills who emerged as the feature back in 2011 as a sophomore.
Nevertheless, the two still kept a watchful eye over their predecessors.
"We learned a lot from Dante and Nate," Ilodianya said. "They gave us a bunch of advice and basically, we just looked up to them with how they were the lead backs last year."
Sticking with the Panthers' penchant for a by-committee backfield, Ilodianya and Wills now get their chance.
"It's been pretty great so far," Wills said. "I've had a lot of people telling me since I was a freshman what to do and how to prepare for everything. They say to approach each game like I've been there before. Just relax, take a deep breath and don't be surprised by anything."
If there are any surprises to be had, it's how efficient the two have been in fulfilling their new roles in such a short time. Through three games, Ilodianya and Wills have combined for 627 yards on 72 rushes, good for an average of 8.7 yards per carry.
The two are the linchpins in an East rushing attack that currently ranks fourth in the Metroplex at 292.3 yards per game.
"We feel like this offense is way more balanced than it was last year for us on JV," Ilodianya said. "We have Collin Shaw at receiver and 'Biggie' (senior quarterback Mario Smalls) leading us. We feel like having them makes us more balanced, which makes the offense simpler and not so one-sided."
Still slanted toward the run -- currently 59 percent of the offensive snaps -- each rusher has enjoyed their share of the spotlight.
After a quiet opener against Garland, Ilodianya broke free in Week 1 against Garland Naaman Forest for 259 total yards of offense and four touchdowns.
"Our team in general was just executing at such a high level," Ilodianya said. "It really made things simple and we were able to execute really easily."
That same night, Wills enjoyed 102 rushing yards and a score on just 10 carries; a figure he surpassed the following week against Richardson Berkner when he took the reins of the offense in the second half -- finishing with 161 yards on the ground plus two scores.
"My coach came to me at halftime and said they were going to give Ricky a bit of rest," Wills said. "He said, 'I want you to go in there and do what you do, which is protect the ball.' I said 'yes sir' and just went out to do what I could to help the team."
The Berkner defense was helpless against Wills, particularly on a third-quarter drive when the Panthers ran Wills all six plays in a 72-yard touchdown drive.
At times, it looked like East was running the same exact play.
"We want to make it tough for them to understand how we run," Wills said. "We might line up the same way a few plays in a row, but run a totally different play."
Stylistically, the two vary, with Ilodianya bulldozing his way through defenders while Wills' straight-line speed has carried him to more than 10 yards per carry this season. It's the perfect combo for a Panthers offense that since the second quarter of the Garland game has been virtually bulletproof.
Through three games, East ranks No. 1 in the area in total offense (554.7 yards), No. 2 in scoring (52.3 points) and No. 6 in passing (262.3).
Those numbers will be put to the test Friday at 7:30 p.m. on the road against a Flower Mound Marcus team Wills admits they have had trouble with each of the past two years.
"I just want us to go one step at a time," Wills said. "We need to focus on one game at a time before we get to where we want to be, which is the playoffs. We need to relax, not over think things and just play the game like we know how."
For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow @MWelchSCN on Twitter.