Willard had an offensive line that could move almost anyone or anything out of the way. Running back Hunter Yeargan rushed for 1,970 yards and 37 touchdowns, and the Tigers went 9-2 on the season.
But that was last year.
This year, only 6-foot-4, 285-pound Martin Eidson remains from that powerful line.
“It’s the exact opposite of what it was last year. I am one of the oldest and most experienced on the line, and I was the youngest last year,” Eidson said. “I’m just trying my best to lead this line the best that I can.”
Yeargan still averages just less than eight yards per carry, maintaining his impressive stats despite running behind younger blockers. While they are graduated and gone, Willard coach Brock Roweton said the spirit of former Tiger linemen Forrest Merrill, Connor Jones, Austin McMillen and Tyler Larsen lives on in the players they mentored, particularly Eidson.
“The attitude that those guys had — that was one thing that we saw very early on that this group was going to continue with that. It’s something you’re proud of as a coach because those guys from past years have molded the way these guys play,” Roweton said.
After seeing Merrill achieve all-state status in 2014, Eidson set a goal for himself.
“I definitely want to be all-state this year. If you set a low bar for yourself, I think that hurts you more. I think you’ve got to look high, and all-state is the highest that it gets,” Eidson said.
Willard hosts Republic (3-3) Friday at 7 p.m. in the News-Leader Game of the Week. Both teams are nicknamed the Tigers, and both employ the single wing offense.
Willard (4-2) returned Yeargan, quarterback Kyle Smith and pass-catching tight end Corbin White at the offensive skill positions. Justin Bearden, Rudy Tapia, Cody Johnson and Nic Ugolini comprise the 2015 offensive line
“We’ve definitely improved,” Eidson said. “We know where the bar was set last year, and so we’re doing our best to continuously get better each week.”
The Tigers’ front seven includes 6-foot-5 , 230-pound tight end Ethan Burson and 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior White. White said he and the other skill position players have adjusted to their new blockers.
“We did lose a lot of big guys, there is no doubt about that, but the guys that are filling in knew that they had to step up during the offseason and they worked hard,” White said.
Three Willard offensive linemen didn’t play last week in a 42-0 loss to Webb City because of injuries, including Eidson. Roweton expects to be close to full strength again for the Republic game.
“We still are young at this point, but we have gelled together. When we have everybody, it’s a pretty good offensive line,” Roweton said. “As the season goes along, young kids get better and we’re seeing that with our offensive line.”
White acknowledged that it was “weird to say,” but went on to describe learning about how capable Willard’s offense could be in the loss to Class 4 No. 1 Webb City.
“I don’t know that we’ve played our best really,” White said. “I think we have a lot of potential to be better than we have played, and I feel like we can put up a lot more points than we have in games prior to this.”
The Springfield News-Leader Game of the Week showcases one high school football game per week through the regular season. The Game of the Week is selected by News-Leader staff based on an array of criteria including quality of play, rivalry, conference significance and playoff implications.
News-Leader Game of the Week
Republic (3-3) at Willard (4-2)
Friday, Oct. 2, 7 p.m.
Tiger Stadium, Willard Middle School
205 Miller Road, Willard