Midland going all in on ground game
It didn't take long for folks at Cabell Midland to realize that Luke Salmons was sticking to his guns, no matter what.
In his first two games as coach last year, the Knights ran the ball 56 times for 382 yards, then 51 times for 340 yards. The fact that they lost two nail-biters didn't diminish their commitment to the ground game.
Midland's players eventually seized momentum with the new game plan, ripping off five straight wins at one point and finishing with an 8-4 record and a spot in the Class AAA playoff quarterfinals. This year, the rush to glory has continued.
The Knights are one of three unbeaten AAA teams remaining in West Virginia, sporting a 5-0 record and the No. 1 spot in the playoff rankings at season's midpoint. Their 14.4 rating is a full 1.4 higher than any other school.
And they can heap most of the thanks onto a diversified running game that averages about 49 carries and 360 yards.
Three different running backs (Lowell Farley, David Gaydosz, Steve Matthews) have combined for nine 100-yard-plus efforts in a game so far this season, and one of the team's most talented runners, Kasey Thomas, just recently rejoined the squad following an injury.
"All these kids are working our scheme,'' said Salmons, the former Ravenswood and Marshall standout. "Every kid brings something different to the table. They're all doing their job well and fitting into what we're doing. They've all got a job to do, and it's blocking and running.''
Salmons, who won the Hunt Award as the state's top lineman at Ravenswood in 1998, came to Midland from Lawrence County (Ky.), where he learned his first high school coaching lesson the hard way in 2008.
"We were a spread team, and we had a very athletic quarterback who could run the spread,'' Salmons said of Chandler Shepherd, who ended up playing baseball at the University of Kentucky. "We were very competitive at times, but we didn't win a game. It came to the point where [Shepherd] got hurt and now we had a freshman quarterback who really didn't do the stuff the other kid could do.
"I realized then that in coaching, if you don't have an abundance of certain-type kids and a certain-type system, you're not going to be very successful. We had some good linemen who were tough and physical and played hard. We studied up, and took some stuff from other teams, even from Wayne, who did a lot of stuff we believed in, and mixed it together. The best thing about it is that we don't have to have that one [talented] kid - we're not going to fall apart if one kid goes down.''
After going 0-11 at Lawrence County in 2008, Salmons flipped it around to 12-1 the following year and his coaching career was off and running. In more ways than one.
He and his staff spent their first year at Midland fine-tuning the offense, and with the return of Thomas and Farley (the school's all-time rushing leader), and the addition of the elusive Gaydosz, a transfer from Winfield, they've struck gold this year.
Farley has run for 721 yards and seven touchdowns with four 100-yard games, Gaydosz has added 539 yards and six TDs with three 100-yard games and Matthews 333 yards and five scores with two 100-yard games.
Salmons still thinks Thomas will make his mark before the season ends.
"Going into the year, Kasey was really good,'' Salmons said. "I couldn't tell you how good he was. We scrimmaged Wayne and he had 300 all-purpose yards. But he got hurt before the first game, and we plug Matthews in and he [averages] over 100-some yards the first three games.
"Even our JVs and our freshmen understand our offense - everything - in case someone does go down.''
Salmons said it became a process of teaching his system to a new group of players.
"Everybody has a preference, I guess,'' he said, "and it could be the lineman in me, I don't know. But I just like the mentality of it.
"If you're running the ball, you've also got to have that defensive mindset - be physical and be tough. Be that kind of team. In my opinion, that sort of [running game] goes hand in hand with your defense. It goes with the program all together. You get a lot better on defense because you know you have to be tough and physical, even in practice on both offense and defense, and it matches your mentality. It fits our program, it fits our kids and it fits our school, and it's one of the reasons they really want to come here and be that type of team at Cabell Midland.''
The Knights, who still have games left against highly ranked teams such as Woodrow Wilson, Capital and Hurricane, have proven to be kind of a throwback team competing in the Mountain State Athletic Conference.
With teams like St. Albans tinkering with a spread offense, much like South Charleston and Capital and others before them, more and more MSAC schools are fielding wide-open passing attacks. But even though Midland believes it can throw the ball if it chooses, expect Salmons to stick to his roots and stick to the ground game.
"It seems like every team we play runs some version of the spread,'' Salmons said, "except for Spring Valley. And it's a challenge, but at the same time, it's a challenge for them to have to play our type of football in a week instead of working on something different at practice.
"I like coaching here because of the challenges, and the kids do, too. They know every week's important.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.