The Chester High School campus was desolate Wednesday morning. Fallen autumn leaves sprinkled the peaceful walkways and barren parking lots indicated it was Thanksgiving break.
The only activity was in the school’s weight room where the 12-0 football team was getting in a lift. The Cyclones are still practicing, their hopes of a 3A state title beating strongly. Victor Floyd’s team hosts Southside in the third round of the playoffs Friday thanks in large part to the team’s most defining strength this season: its offensive run game.
Out of 662 offensive plays this season, Chester has run the ball 559 times. The Cyclones’ offensive plan is wholly representative of its coach, Floyd.
“Hard-nosed, tough guy, and so he gets us to reflect that,” said star running back Pha’Leak Brown.
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“He’s influenced us a lot because he’s told us that if we be physical, we can just about do anything,” said senior offensive lineman Keith Boyd, a Beta Club member. “But also having a mindset to be relentless, which is one of the words in our creed.”
Before every game, Floyd and his team repeat their creed:
“We will be...” Floyd says in a stern voice. “Physical,” his players shout.
“We will be...” “Relentless!”
Focusing on the run game has given Chester every opportunity to be relentlessly physical.
Eighty-four percent of the Cyclones’ offensive plays have been hand-offs, wildcat direct snaps, quarterback keepers or some other type of run play. But opponents still struggle to stop the Cyclones. They’ve topped 300 yards rushing in eight of 12 games this season, including the last five in a row. The team’s lowest rushing output was 225 yards against Fort Mill.
“That’s kind of how it is every game. We know they’re gonna prepare for the run but it’s just a matter of how, if, they’re gonna be able to stop it,” said Brown. “It gives you great confidence when they know what you’re doing and you still can do it. It gives us confidence that we can do anything we want to.”
The creed continues:
“We will bleed...” “Navy and red!”
“We will...” “Win!”
Chester’s run game has given it a clear identity this year, as much as the school’s navy and red colors.
“It’s made us more physical, top to bottom,” said Floyd. “Defensively, offensively, just the nature of it. A lot of time when you’re in the spread (offense), it’s hard to simulate physicality in practice because you focus so much on the finesse stuff. With us, it’s been kind of a reverse in a sense, because we’ve created a physical practice, a physical culture. Because people don’t do that anymore it’s a little different.”
Floyd guessed that 70 percent of South Carolina high school football teams run spread offenses. Years ago, Floyd would go through a 10-game schedule and count out how many teams were gonna mostly throw the ball. Now most coaches have to do it the other way, such is the dearth of run-focused offenses.
Chester has become that uncommon and difficult team for opposing coaches to scheme against, and that’s contributed to the school’s first ever 12-0 start. The Cyclones overcame a 14-0 deficit to beat Fort Mill back in August, a result that Floyd said got him almost complete buy-in from the last few doubters within his team. The surge has only grown in the months since, spreading beyond players’ parents and the school, and out into the community.
“It’s awesome but you still have to keep your head focused on the prize, and the prize for us is winning state,” said Boyd.
“We are...” “Chester!”
“We are Chester!”
The shift to a focus on pounding opponents into submission happened last offseason, and all it took was a quick glance at the Cyclones’ roster. Two things jumped out: a big and experienced offensive line and a talented and versatile group of ball-carriers.
Every starting lineman entered this season with at least 12 starts, even sophomore Jordan Allen, who is 6-foot-4, 290 pounds and a potential college prospect. Daniel Elkins, Montez Hall and Boyd give the group a trio of three-year starters in the middle three positions, while the Cyclones have a certified stomper at tackle in Appalachian State commit Wyatt Tunall, who has started all four years of high school and is a Shrine Bowl pick and Mr. Football finalist.
With a good game against Southside, freshman QB Zan Dunham could become Chester’s third 1,000-yard rusher this season. Floyd said the 6-foot-1, 210-pound freshman’s emergence has given the Cyclone offense its X-factor, a dominant short-yardage option. Brown, a combo of all four skill sets, leads the group with 1,214 yards, while junior Stan Mills, an explosive slasher, has pitched in 1,010. senior Emmanuel Wright, called Bubba but much faster than that nickname suggests, has 628 yards and some of the team’s longest touchdown runs.
The quartet has 50 TDs total and only four fumbles.
“It gives defenses a headache,” said Brown, who has offers from Cincinnati, Old Dominion and Rice and is getting increased interest from Utah State. “One running back comes at them like a cheetah, the next running back comes in pounding it. It’s a lot.”
Floyd, who was named Tri-County coach of the year and South Carolina Football Coaches Association 3A Upper State coach of the year already this season, and his staff deserve credit for adjusting their offensive plans to the program’s strengths. Chester has thrown for over 2,000 yards in recent seasons, but that’s not this team. This is Chester, 2018, and it could be the school’s best team ever.
“I don’t know how it’ll be a year from now. We’ll see what we’ve got and go from there,” said Floyd.
Worked so far.
Southside (9-3) at Chester (12-0)
Last week: Southside beat Pendleton 22-20 OT; Chester beat Broome 39-15
Last meeting: never played
Key players: S - ATH Jalon Calhoun, RB Braydon Bennett, LB Jaylin McGee, LB Tay Dendy. C - DL Quay Evans, DE Teddy Murphy, ATH Zion Mills, LB Jovonti Jackson.
Need to know about Southside: Southside won an unusual game last week against Pendleton to reach the third round for the first time in school history. The Tigers are five-time basketball state champs, including both of the last two in the 3A ranks, but football success has been much more rare. The win over Pendleton was only the Tigers’ third playoff win since 1976.
Jeremy West’s team is very athletic and shifts pretty easily into different offensive formations, including running Shrine Bowler and college prospect Jalon Calhoun at QB. Running back Braydon Bennett has run for close to 2,000 yards. The Tigers have forced 30 turnovers in 12 games and also go for two-point conversions after almost every touchdown. Keep that in mind if the game is close late.