High School Sports

Whale Branch adopts key aspects of powerful Bluffton offense

After Hardeeville High School grabbed the lead last Friday with a little more than a minute remaining, Whale Branch seniors Josh Fields and Andre Watson shared a brief, spirited exchange.

"We were like, 'We're going to get it down there, score and go home,' " Fields said.

That's how the Warriors' first Region 5-A test played out, with 24 seconds to spare. A big kickoff return, a penalty, a huge fourth-down conversion and a 10-yard fade did the trick.

That Whale Branch was able to execute its two-minute drill was a testament to a new look on offense -- a tweak to the base scheme and key personnel additions.

The Warriors shelved the option after their inaugural season and adapted the same flexbone formation during the spring to suit their athletes. After consulting with Bluffton High School coach Ken Cribb, the Warriors went to the toss as their primary weapon, with counters to mix things up.

Speed is the new game, and with Fields and Watson piling up touches, Warriors coaches feel the offense is in good hands. The tweaks have helped Whale Branch to a 4-0 start in its second season and spawned hope of more to come.

A need for change

Rob D'Amato faced a clean slate when he assumed his first head coaching position at Whale Branch last season.

With the Warriors' limited size and experience, coaches opted for an option offense, a style seen as a sort of equalizer to help a smaller team compete with a bigger, more talented squad. But D'Amato and offensive coordinator Hugh Hood felt the Warriors had trouble protecting the football while running the option. Beyond that, the offense was slow to develop. When points were needed in a hurry, they weren't always there.

D'Amato referenced Navy's loss this past weekend at South Carolina, when the option-based Midshipmen struggled to play from behind during the fourth quarter.

The Whale Branch staff determined its most effective offensive plays last season were sweeps run with Fields. They wanted to continue utilizing the speed of Fields and the newcomer Watson.

"They're fast guys, and it's putting them in a position to be fast," Hood said. "If they trust their speed, they can make explosive plays for us."

And so Hood and the Warriors' other offensive assistants met with Cribb before spring practice to learn how the Bobcats execute the toss. The formation would remain the same, but the ball would get out faster.

They watched film and asked questions, leaving with an understanding of the concept.

Speed and timing are critical, Cribb said. He has seen the Warriors run their new plays on film and says they run it well.

"A lot of people try to run what we do, but if you don't understand the philosophy of it, you can't run it," he said. "They had great questions. They understand what makes it go. It really impressed me. They have a grasp of the concept."

Lost and found

The Warriors might not have pulled off the transition if not for fortuitous circumstances.

Whale Branch learned early it would undergo the offensive changes without its starting quarterback from the previous season.

Stedmon James injured his knee during the spring and is still recovering. D'Amato said James hoped to be cleared in time for the Ridgeland game next week but that he might not play until two weeks after that.

But not long after James went down, the Warriors learned of their new transfers.

Quarterback Brandon Morton moved here from Korea -- where his parents are teachers with the U.S. Department of Defense -- and lives with his grandmother. Watson, whose father is a U.S. Marine, moved from Japan.

Football in the Far East was classier than here, Morton said. Teams flew to each game and often played on artificial turf. The wide range of venues and opponents -- the teams often scrimmaged Korean and Japanese adult teams -- taught the players a lot about the game and provided a different perspective, Watson said.

Once at Whale Branch, Morton immediately filled the starting quarterback role and Watson slipped in at slotback. Fields and Watson have proved a tough combination to slow down.

"This year, it's more you've got to catch us quicker," Fields said. "Last year, it was slower with the option, the quarterback had to ride the fullback first and then carry out the option. This year, we catch the ball and go."

The Warriors average 36.3 points per game as they near the season's halfway point. The Hurricanes held Whale Branch to its lowest output of the season, but Fields did escape for a 53-yard touchdown run off the toss during the first half. And Whale Branch manufactured points when it needed them.

The outlook

Outside of the scheme and athletes, D'Amato said the Warriors' offensive line is blocking better than it did a season ago. And with the toss, there is less pressure on the line to perform, outside of containing the end.

He said the Warriors are more mature and "football smart" than a season ago. That said, Whale Branch will face many more tests to its offense's durability.

But with counters and fullback John Little to keep the defense honest and a few wrinkles on the way, the Warriors believe they will make it work. Players said surviving last week's region-opener provided evidence of the team's mettle.

"It really tests your personality and how well you can hold yourself together in those situations," Watson said. "You grow as a person in those kind of moments."

Fields, Watson and Little are seniors. Morton, a junior, talked of the possibility of moving after the season. James is also a senior.

If the turnover after this season requires the Warriors staff to again rethink its offensive philosophy, they might not find Cribb as open with his playbook the next time around. The Bobcats coach joked about an interesting matchup on the 2012 schedule.

"We are playing them next year," Cribb said. "You can go and tell them 'No more info.' "

Sports reporter Sam McDowell contributed to this story.