September 23, 2021
By Greg Selber
The running quarterback slides in and out of fashion amid the dynamism of the football eras but always, in its stride, provides another option for an offense and potentially pleasing runs for the fans to cheer. And headaches for the D.
It was all the rage in the halcyon eon of the Wishbone in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Texas and Oklahoma among others dazzled and befuddled opposing defenses with the so-called triple option. Think Marty Akins of the ‘Horns, Thomas Lott/J.C. Watts for the Sooners, or any number of other saintly names from the ‘70s.
Make a choice, it demanded. You spy the outside, we give it to the fullback on the dive. You take away the dive, we waltz laterally down the line of scrimmage with two options still alive, QB keeper or the pitch to the trailing halfback. And so on, as defenses were kept off balance and generally outnumbered at the point(s) of attack. It spread the field and put the onus on the defense to pick a poison.
When it worked, it was magical, revolutionizing college football. Its kissin’ cousin, the Veer, as concocted by the brilliant Bill Yeoman of Houston fame, was equally successful. Emory Bellard (UT OC from 1967-71 and later the Aggie mentor) was perhaps the brains behind the Wishbone, arguments begin.
Now, in most ancient times, it was the dreaded Single Wing, with the tailback, or “spinner” as actually more of an option quarterback – out of what was then not called the shotgun – running the show and having the ability to do the three deeds: give, run, or pass/pitch. Actually there were four choices in the mist of the past, as many teams chose to punt on third down to surprise the defense and start to win the field position battle. Old School in session. So Old School that in the Single Wing, created by the legendary Glenn “Pop” Warner (yes, that Pop Warner) the “quarterback” was actually a blocking back. Confused? So were defenses of 1906.
Closer to recent calendars, the early advent of the Spread included a package called the Pistol, with a single back lined up close to the passer, both nearer the line of scrimmage than normal, and said passer – usually a superior athlete compared to stationary, stand-up throwers in the traditional I formation or Pro Set – took part in what was termed the Read Option. Variations of it produced a bevy of 1,000-yard rushers from the QB slot, i.e. Colin Kaepernick, Michael Vick, Michael Bishop, Vince Young, Tim Tebow and on down the line. In this instance, the passing ability of the QB was less of a focus than his chops at cutting upfield, making a move, and moving the chains with regularity.
Which brings us to Thursday, finally (apologies offered). It was on Thursday that Edinburg High’s latest triple threat put on another tremendous show of all-around skill, running for 132 yards to lead the Bobcats to a bit of a shock, a demonstrative 34-14 victory over visiting Mission. Quarterback Rolando Abrego, who came into the affair as the leading rusher in District 31-6A, was the star of the hour, juking and jetting through a very strong Eagle defense for gain after gain, scoring twice and setting the tone for the team’s third consecutive victory.
The senior quarterback does not pilot the Wishbone, or the Single Wing, as EHS is a basic Spread team in an era full of them. And it’s not quite the Pistol either for the fact that the Bobcats do not give him a choice, per se. They simply call the keeper, over and over, until enemy D’s can stop the athletic three-year starter. And this they have not been able to with any sort of alacrity so far in 2021.
In five games for the ‘Cats (3-0 in league play, 3-2 overall), Abrego has picked up 575 yards on 79 carries for an average of 7.2 per try. His penchant for eluding tacklers, breaking others, has given the offense a distinct theme for the first campaign of coach Rene Guzman, one that has been carried throughout with consistent result. Abrego has surpassed 100 yards three times so far and has scored a pair of touchdowns in each of the team’s last four ball games.
Against Mission he was back to his tricks again, getting into the end zone twice, once from the 24 in the second period and once from the 6 in the third. The first score gave the ‘Cats a 10-0 lead and cemented the momentum, and the second brought the count to 31-7, sealing a very impressive performance for the surging program. At times Abrego scooted past an end or linebacker, and at others he bulled his way through several Eagles. For example, EHS led 24-0 after the QB’s second touch, until Mission woke up and drove for six, late in the third. Soon faced with a fourth and short at his own 49, Abrego appeared stopped on the keeper until he put his head down and drove the pile onward to the first down, whereupon EHS continued downfield, Abrego eventually doing the end zone honors to put the game away.
The program has enjoyed some fine runners behind center through the years, from Jimmy Wright in the 1950s to more well-known luminaries such as Michael Salinas and Clarence Cruz. As recently as 2016, Nathan Marez rushed for more than 1,000 yards as the EHS quarter, and now Abrego.
“It’s part of the game,” said the senior leader, when discussing the fact that every time anyone runs the ball, QB or not, they face the chance of taking a lick and sometimes getting hurt. “I try to protect myself out there when I take off, but really I’m going to do whatever it takes to help the team win. I do it for the team and the city, and I don’t worry about stuff like getting hit or getting hurt. I sacrifice so we can win, period.”
Guzman said that the first time he met Abrego, shortly after coming back to his alma mater after a career of success at Weslaco East, he knew what he had.
“I told myself, ‘Here is a guy who wants to be great, someone who is ready to lead,’” he said. “He had the right mentality, potentially, and our job as a staff was to help him learn how to take advantage of his skills. He worked very hard in the spring, figuring out what we wanted, which was an aggressive offensive attack, and right now he’s doing everything we asked of him.”
Though his quick bursts and slick moves, his speedy breaks to the outside, have paced the offense in 2021, Abrego has also passed with precision. In the Mission game he was 10 of 15 for 116 yards, and one play in particular stands out. It came with the ‘Cats up 10-0 in the second.
After Jordan Ayala recovered a fumble at the Mission 29, EHS bogged down and faced a fourth and 12. Abrego dropped back, found no one open, and appeared to be ready to set sail; the Eagles, well aware of what and who they were dealing with, regrouped to try and find No. 6, several defenders heading his way. But just as he neared the line of scrimmage heading left, the EHS cog stopped and flipped a pass to running back Jacob Gonzalez, who had floated free and unbothered into the flat. The 31-yard catch-and-run score was one of the keys to the night, as the ‘Cats had done two great things: 1. Convert a turnover into max points and 2. Convert a fourth down snap.
“We knew they had a blitz-heavy defense,” said Abrego after the game. “I told the back to be ready, and after I checked down through the receivers, it had to be him. The linebacker came in, the rush came flat, and I was kicking back, waiting for a moment. Once the linebacker came inside to me, I knew what we had, so I just dumped it off.”
Plays like that indicate quick thinking by a senior who has obviously done his homework and listened to the coaches, including offensive coordinator Jimmy Young, the fiery ex San Benito coach. But it also illustrates that when you have a running threat behind center, a la the Single Wing, Wishbone or fill in the blank, defenders have to think twice about pinning their ears back and coming, as the saying goes. The running quarterback will make you pay for that decision, one way or another.