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Wolves' running backs sharing the wealth
Buford High's Robert Hill runs through practice drills at a recent practice. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

BUFORD — Along with the state championship contenders and college prospects littering the field, a punishing running game has been one of the constants of the Buford High football program in recent years.

Regardless of how many players come and go, the Wolves’ I-formation offense rarely seems any less formidable than it did the year before. It’s a scheme that has steamrolled its way to three straight state championships and is aiming for a fourth.

Buford will try to take the next step toward that goal when Callaway visits Tom Riden Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the second round of the state playoffs.

While it wouldn’t be fair to say the Wolves (10-1) struggled early this season, it’s hard to argue that they are just starting to play some of their best football. In large part that’s due to the fact they’ve found a groove in the ground game.

Two weeks ago, in a 42-0 win over Westminster in the 6-AA championship, Buford rushed 38 times for 372 yards and six touchdowns. Last week, in a 52-22 win over Hart County in the first round of the state playoffs, the Wolves had 319 yards and seven touchdowns on just 27 carries.

In those two games, 13 different players have carried the ball, none have carried it more than eight times in a game, and seven of them have scored.

“We’ve done running back by committee here a long, long time, because, you know, we’re still a small school. Guys still have to play defense,” said Jess Simpson, who in his sixth season at the school has compiled a 78-4 record. “And I think it encourages kids to be unselfish. I think it makes us better.”

The results speak for themselves.

Tailback Seon Jones, who set the school record for rushing yards in a game earlier this season with a 319-yard effort against Lovett, leads the team with 819 yards this season. He’s followed by fullback Dominque Swope with 532. They’ve done their part in the last two games, but have almost been overshadowed at times by their back-ups.

Eric Barr, who also starts at safety, has carried six times for 177 yards and two touchdowns in the last two weeks. For the season, he’s averaging 16.4 yards per carry. Andrew Scierra also stepped in and ran six times for 74 yards and two scores last week after reserve tailback and starting defensive back Darrian Smith was lost to a shoulder injury.

“You look at last week and Eric and Dominique and Scierra all had three or four carries and were just popping it,” Simpson said. “They’re playing fast and they’re feeding off each other.

“And it’s competitive, too. Andre Johnson is a talented fullback, too. All those kids are competing. They know they’ve got to be sharp.”

When so many backs are finding so much room to run, it’s apparent the offensive line is doing its job.

Dominance at the line of scrimmage is hallmark of Buford’s offensive success, often achieved in recent years with sheer size and brute force. This year’s starters aren’t lacking in girth; their average size is 6-foot-2, 254 pounds, but is skewed by the presence of 6-5, 315-pound left tackle Vadal Alexander.

However, the Wolves say their size isn’t what has made the group successful.

“We’re the hardest working O-line Buford’s had in a while,” Alexander said. “We may not all be 6-5, 300 — I am, but not all of us are — but we’ve got an extreme work ethic and we can out-physical anybody.”

Simpson said the group’s emergence as a cohesive unit is the reason the offense is clicking.

“What’s exciting about them is the way they’ve jelled as a group and their speed of play,” Simpson said. “We have been really big the last couple of years. We’re not as big this year, nowhere near as big as we’ve been, but I think our speed of play has certainly improved and we’ve got some gritty kids up there.”

Now the Wolves will try to carry their momentum into Friday’s game and earn an 11th consecutive trip to the state quarterfinals. Nathan Staub, a starter at fullback and linebacker before a knee injury cost him the remainder of his junior season, thinks the team’s best game is still ahead.

“The energy right now is amazing,” he said. “You never want to peak too early, and we’re a team that’s getting better and better. We’re really young; we’ve got so many starting juniors, and I think the game against Westminster was the best game we’ve played all year. And this is when you want to peak: playoff time.”

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