Riverside has the makings of a pretty decent offense for the coming season. Now the big challenge for the Warriors is making sure it’s a reliable offense.
Anytime you can start with a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, as the Warriors can with senior tailback Caden Easterling, you’ve got your cornerstone, and you build around it.
That’s what second-year coach Alex Daugherty intends to do, owing to the return of several key pieces from last year’s squad — linemen Austin Chapman (6-foot-1, 290 pounds) and J.T. Taylor (6-1, 200), quarterback Javante Elzy and fullback Charlie Pierson.
In addition, Griffin Canterbury and Dalton Saul, linebackers last season, switch to the offensive line and Tanner Clark assumes a full-time position on the front wall after playing many meaningful snaps against George Washington and South Charleston. Griffin Key, a backup running back a year ago, also figures to get more carries.
All of that convinces Daugherty that his offense will be much improved.
“We spent a lot of time in Year 1 installing what we wanted,’’ Daugherty said, “and that just takes some time. We had a new offensive coordinator, a new coach, new coaches everywhere pretty much, installing from Square 1. In June this year, we hit the ground rolling and didn’t have to backtrack as much. We really took some steps forward.
“We also placed a huge emphasis on getting in the weight room, and we had some phenomenal numbers turn out. Kanawha County schools did a good job of updating our facility, too.’’
Daugherty noted that some players, like Easterling, took advantage of the weight training facility, as he tacked on 20 pounds of muscle and now comes in at 6-1 and 190.
Easterling’s production could play a significant role in Riverside’s success. As a junior, he turned in one of the top rushing efforts in the state with a monster 45-carry, 410-yard, four-touchdown game in a 39-36 loss at GW. His yardage total marked a school record for a program that began in 1999.
In his first three seasons, Easterling has made a habit of busting out 100-yard games. Thirteen times in his career he’s gone for 109 yards or more in a game, including other games last season of 262 yards and two TDs on 15 carries against St. Albans, 155 yards on 27 carries versus SC and 127 yards and a TD on 18 attempts against Greenbrier East.
However, there have been just as many low-tide outings for Easterling — 10 times he’s been held under 60 yards in a game, including three straight to begin last season with double-figure carries and no more than 29 yards. Daugherty stresses the need for consistency from his running game.
“Exactly right,’’ Daugherty said. “Early in the season last year, we struggled to run the ball. We were kind of getting the install in, and working with our offensive linemen to really get off the football. We concentrated on getting off the football, and as you can see, as the year went on, we really started taking off.
“The Beckley game [in the opener], we were awful. The Ripley and Huntington games, not much better. We were in those games because of our defense. This year I think it’s our offense that could be hard to slow down.’’
During the stretch run of the season, Easterling and Pierson were a formidable combo, with Easterling going for 565 yards in back-to-back games against SC and GW, and Pierson adding 127 yards and two TDs on just 17 carries in those two games. Easterling ended the season with 1,207 yards on the ground, and Elzy threw for 590 yards and seven scores.
“It’s a testament to the kids working,’’ Daugherty said, “and buying into what we want to do. We didn’t win those ballgames, but we know we were in those ballgames. Once kids see that and get a taste of that success, it makes a difference. Having those key parts back gets their hopes up, and we believe that matters in winning those close games.’’
Riverside went 1-9 last year but actually wasn’t very far from earning its first playoff bid since 2007. The Warriors lost three tight games by a total of 10 points — Ripley (34-30), SC (24-21 in two overtimes) and GW (39-36). Only three of their losses in a 1-9 season came by more than 17 points, and they met six Class AAA playoff teams.
“It’s hard, not having been to the playoffs since 2007,’’ Daugherty said. “It’s about who wants it more at that time. Our guys have won at every level except high school, and we’re trying to transition that success within our program.’’