Sissonville lost so much talent from last year, especially a one-of-a-kind quarterback in senior Chance Brown, that many expected the Indians to take a step back this season.
But that hasn’t happened, in large part because of another quarterback who’s proven to be pretty prolific himself.
Junior Will Hackney has stepped into the spot vacated by Brown and started to weave his own success story, helping Sissonville get off to a 3-0 start and a tie for fifth in the Class AA playoff ratings.
Hackney has thrown for 955 yards to lead the Cardinal Conference — no small feat considering that Kennedy Award winner Jeremy Dillon of defending state champion Mingo Central also competes in the same league.
The production of Hackney has helped change the way the Indians run their offense, which used to be more ground-oriented with Brown under center. In 2015 when Brown was a junior, Sissonville averaged just eight passes per game. That number went up to 22 for Brown last season as the Indians went 9-1, secured the No. 4 seed in the AA state playoffs and earned Brown first-team all-state honors.
With Hackney taking snaps, it’s gone up again to 27 passes a game, and Hackney’s averaged 318 yards while throwing for nine touchdowns in his first three starts.
“I think Chance’s strength was running the ball,’’ said Sissonville third-year coach Marc Wilson. “Of course, he made some great plays passing the ball as well, but he set a lot of those up by running the football. Will’s kind of a gunslinger, actually. He prefers to throw the ball over running the ball.
“Now that doesn’t mean he won’t run. He’s got talent at that, too. As a [junior varsity] player, he racked up a ton of yards running the ball. But he likes to chuck the ball downfield, and he’s good at it, so we’re going to let him do it. So if there’s any reworking of our offense, it was really just understanding his skill set more so than changing anything.’’
Hackney, who served as the backup QB last year, heard a lot of chatter in the off-season about replacing Brown, who accounted for more than 3,000 yards of offense and 38 touchdowns (2,082 yards, 24 TDs passing; 995 yards, 14 TDs rushing).
“People asked me if I wanted to follow in his footsteps,’’ Hackney said. “He had a great career — he started his sophomore, junior and senior year. His senior year, he went 9-1. So do I want to follow in his footsteps? I just want to try and play like he did last year.
“When I roll out, I don’t look to run as much as Chance did because he was probably a better runner than me. I feel like I can throw downfield a lot better than him.’’
Wilson said the decision to go more pass-heavy had to do with the corps of receivers as much as it did with Hackney’s evolution.
“Obviously, in our first year, when you step in, you don’t really know what you have, so you try to do something that you know well. After getting to know the personnel and the guys who are here, we went with more of a spread-style offense that matches our personnel better. We changed some of our plays, but we really believe it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Our guys have committed to being excellent, and they try to go out and do it every day.’’
Leading the receivers has been senior Michael Pinkerton with 17 catches for 254 yards and three TDs, followed by Chance Jones (10 catches, 160 yards, one TD), Hunter Thomas (eight catches, 152 yards, one TD) and Mayson Miller (eight catches, 133 yards, four TDs).
“We changed [the offense] up a little bit,’’ Hackney said, “because last year we had Chance and Austin Cook in the backfield and we ran the ball a lot. Now we have a lot of skilled receivers, so we’re throwing the ball a little bit more.
“We try to beat [opposing defenses] everywhere. Whatever they give us, we’ll take it, and just go from there.’’
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Hackney has shown good touch on short, intermediate and deep routes, completing 51 of 80 attempts for 64 percent accuracy. He also has a knack for seeing the entire field, having completed passes to nine different receivers so far.
“It’s nice to be able to spread the ball,’’ Wilson said. “In previous teams in past years, you go through that, ‘Get me the ball, get me the ball’ thing, and these guys aren’t like that. They enjoy the fact that we spread the ball out. Everybody touches it every game, and you can’t just defend one person because anybody in our offense can hurt you.
“Not to take anything away from our players, but it’s not like we’re going out here with a bunch of burners. We’ve got good football players who will catch the football, will break a tackle and will run with it if you get it. We’re getting them in space and hoping they’ll make a play.’’
Sissonville may have surprised a lot of people around the Kanawha Valley with its 3-0 start, but it hasn’t surprised the coaching staff and players.
“Our guys work within our system,’’ Wilson said. “They work hard in the weight room and they learn their positions. We try to build guys through our JV programs so that they’re ready to step into those spots. Now they’ve kind of got their stripes, if you will, as you develop them.
“But I’m not surprised in that our kids are tough, hard-nosed kids and they’re ready to step up when their number’s called. One of the things we preach around here is fundamentals — we say that’s excellence in blocking and tackling. So if you’re excellent blocking and tackling, you’ll be ready when your number’s called.’’
Hackney heard the dire forecasts in the off-season, but didn’t believe them.
“A lot of people didn’t think we’d do good at all,’’ he said. “They thought we lost everybody. We lost four, five all-state honorees. Nobody really thought we’d go 3-0, but we all knew it. We thought we were loaded in a couple spots, and that’s where we’re at.’’