Airborne Philosophy: An athletic roster has opened up SWE's passing game
By PATRICK MASON
Thursday, October 4, 2018
It all started with an untimely injury, a quick-thinking decision from head coach Jonathan Cobb, and a basketball player willing to play football.
And now, quarterback Jayden Lewis and wide receiver Keishon Porter hold significant roles on the SouthWest Edgecombe football team; the pair is the driving force behind a shift in offensive philosophy for the Cougars, who are on pace to have the most passing yards in at least a decade.
The summer of 2017 had gone as planned for SWE. The lineup was set, the game plan was ready to be unveiled, and the annual Tarboro Jamboree would serve as the final tuneup before the regular season. But projected starting quarterback Tre Williams suffered an elbow injury that left the Cougars without a passer to open the season.
Lewis, a career running back, had thrown passes at the JV level, and that was good enough for Cobb, who was in a pinch and named Lewis the team’s new quarterback at the start of the season.
“One of the JV coaches told coach Cobb about me,” Lewis said. “We put a lot in, a lot of lot of extra passes, and worked on me with stuff like standing in the pocket, and moving around and throwing. I’m working on things, read-option stuff, too. Just trying to get better and finding my reads.”
In true Cougars fashion, the team relied on a smash-mouth rushing attack in 2017 that collected 4,086 yards and 43 touchdowns, en route to a 10-3 season and a share of the conference crown. Lewis, still learning the intricacies of the quarterback position while not being fully trusted to be let loose, threw for 300 yards across 13 games.
Williams returned from his elbow injury to play in parts of six games, passing for 85 yards.
But the progress and potential Lewis showed in his junior season was enough to force Cobb into thinking up ways to maximize Lewis’ talent. Lewis, at 5-foot-7, would be asked to throw on the move in order to shift his eye line from seeing the backs of linemen to seeing open grass and receivers.
“He’s special. As long as he can see, boy, he will put it where it needs to go,” Cobb said of Lewis. “He’s a good runner, smart, and he’s not going to make too many mistakes, even though I’m asking him to do a lot of funky things. I don’t even know if he’s realized his potential yet.
“When I turned to a running back after the Jamboree, I had this quarterback who was a little short, so we try to be innovative in getting him ways to see.”
With a capable quarterback in place, the idea of SWE utilizing the passing game became more of a reality when Porter showed up.
Porter has a basketball-first mindset, highlighted by his standing as SWE’s second-leading scorer a year ago as a sophomore. But his basketball skills translate to the football field in ways that can force a coach to extend the playbook. That was evident during practices before this season where the 6-foot-4 junior caught everything thrown his way.
“It was really personnel driven,” Cobb said of passing more often. “We’ve had football players here for a long time, but not necessarily the basketball bodies who play football. We have some now and I figured we should try to find a way to use him.”
The Cougars (4-1), through five games, have more passing yards (479) than through the entirety of each of the past two seasons. No SWE team has passed for more than 688 yards since 2013, and this year’s team is poised to breeze past that number.
With six games left, including Friday’s home conference game against North Pitt, the Cougars and Lewis are on pace to pass for 1,054 yards.
“We’re usually a run team but now we’re getting some passing in the mix to do some different things,” Porter said. “The coaches see some things in me that had them wanting to make a change. They knew I had speed and the height, and saw I could catch in tryouts and practice.”
What the Cougars’ coaching staff saw is what opposing teams have had to deal with. Look no further than Porter’s two touchdowns against Northern Nash. Lewis lobbed both passes to Porter, who used his height to come down with the touchdowns. Porter leveraged his long frame to box out his defender, then high-pointed the ball in the air.
Last week in a win against Currituck County, Lewis connected with Porter for a 70-yard touchdown pass. Lewis’ tightly thrown spiral found Porter in stride for the score.
“It was a nice ball,” Cobb said. “Keishon played running back on JV last year, so getting them comfortable and learning how to connect with each other will be something we’ll look for as they get more opportunities.”
Porter has become a safety valve for Lewis, who trusts that the junior receiver will come down with those 50-50 balls. He has 10 catches, 263 receiving yards and four touchdowns, all team-highs.
And while the newfound passing game has kept defenses from spamming the line of scrimmage, this Cougars team won’t stop feeding a well-stocked backfield. The team is run-first, but with 1,168 yards, this year’s squad won’t catch the rushing production of 2017.
And with the way the Cougars move the ball through the air, that might not be such a bad thing.