Features | Friday Night Drive

Ground game keeps on churning for Forreston

The running game at Forreston is about as consistent as it gets. Every year, like clockwork, the Cardinals ride a stable of backs and a strong offensive line to big gains – and wins.

But the most impressive part about that vaunted rushing attack is how year after year, despite the names and faces changing, it still never misses a beat.

The three state championship teams in 2014, 2016 and 2018 all had a different corps of backs running behind a different group of offensive linemen; only Garrett Badertscher was a key cog in the backfield of two different state title teams.

So what is it about the Forreston program that it can just plug in the next guy and have the same kind of success?

“We work really hard on the run, and we own that and that’s our identity, so we just run with it,” coach Keynon Janicke said, pun not intended. “The kids are the biggest thing; they’ve completely bought into what we’re doing.

“The coaches before me were able to set a system in place that really works for our kids. So anybody can come in and they can know our system and they can get playing time, and they know it inside-out. Our program starts at sixth grade in Junior Tackle and you work your way up all the way to varsity, so you’re doing the same type of thing everyday for seven years straight, and it just become ingrained in your mind.”

This fall will be another season where a new stable of backs will have to fill some big shoes. The Cardinals lost their top four rushers from a year ago – Matthew Beltran, Jacob Fiorello, Devonte King-Black and Noah Johnson – who combined to run for 2,271 yards and 27 touchdowns.

But because of the multi-back rotations at both the wing and fullback positions, there are four guys returning from last year – Kaleb Sanders, McKeon Crase, Micah Nelson and Quinten Frederick – who all ran for more than 150 yards and combined for 925 yards and eight scores between them.

“We lost 13 seniors, which stinks, but we have guys that bought in, so it’s like we pick up right where we left off,” Janicke said.

Frederick credits that seemingly annual ability of the new group to step up and have success to learning from the guys who came before them – as well as hunger and desire for the backups to show what they can do when given the opportunity.

“I think it’s definitely, when you’re younger, working with the older guys. When I was a freshman, the seniors that year were Ethan Mulder, Dom Christensen and those guys, so just watching them and learning from them, and still going back and watching film from when they played, that helps a lot,” Frederick said. “And I think it’s insane how much we want to get out there. You look at them and the success that they had, and you just think ‘I want to be like them.’ You just look up to them and try to do the same things in football that they did. That just makes you super-anxious to want to be like them.”

Things are the same way up front year in and year out, with a new group of road-graters paving the way for the Forreston runners.

This year is a bit different, as the Cardinals only lost two linemen to graduation this past spring. That bodes well for the ground game, with the experience and knowledge of the offense the returning guys possess.

“I know tight end to tight end what everybody’s doing on every play,” senior Drew Dieterman said. “You can ask me what the left tight end is doing on this play and I can tell you, or what the right guard is doing on this play and I can tell you. It’s not that I study that, it’s just from being on the line or watching film, you know the concepts and everything.”

While the names of the linemen aren’t as familiar as the guys carrying the ball behind them, the stats put up by the offense are a source of great pride for the guys in the trenches. It’s a badge of honor to block for a 400-yard rushing game, or to see a back break off a long touchdown run.

“Of course, any run or pass play starts with the line. If one guy doesn’t do their job, the play is done,” Dieterman said. “We don’t get recognized, but obviously it starts with us. If we don’t do our job, there’s no yards to gain – so if there’s a 20-yard gain, we know we did our job.”

When the backs do their job too, it’s a thing of beauty to watch the symmetry of a play unfold. Frederick says that’s not just an accident, or something that comes together out of the blue; instead, it stems from years of those players working together in the same system.

In fact, as Janicke alluded to, by the time the Cardinals players reach the varsity level, things flow naturally and don’t require much thought or discussion. They just go out and and do it.

“I feel like if you stay in the same position, it just clicks around your sophomore or early junior year. That’s when it did for me, but I’ve switched around a decent amount,” Frederick said. “I know most of the running back positions, so after I’d say three weeks when you move to a different position, that’s about when it clicks. You just go out and do what you’ve been doing ever since you started playing.”

Dieterman credits the competitiveness of practices during game preparation as a key factor in the next group taking over and succeeding when they become the starters.

“It starts with everybody on scout team, they get in and go hard; they almost treat it like a scrimmage,” he said. “The freshmen through juniors who aren’t even playing, they’ll run as hard as they can every play, rotate in and out, and they’re prepared once they do get in a game. It’s just second-nature.”

And that comes from repetition and experience. Because so many kids compete against the varsity team as younger players, they’re more than ready to step up to the challenge when it’s their turn to start.

Janicke says that’s a key tenet of the Forreston program: getting as many kids as many chances to run plays and learn the system as possible, at all levels. The result is a steady stream of game-ready backs and linemen to execute the system year in and year out.

“We’re all about reps here, we get as many reps as possible, whether at practice or our team scrimmage, a ton of fresh-soph games on Mondays, we’ve done some freshman games, we do a lot of freshmen jamborees, too, if we can,” he said. “It’s just about getting all those reps and buying in, and then they get to be a part of it. It’s really cool to see freshmen grow into their own as seniors, and who gets to be part of what we call our rotation, whether it’s at the wings or fullback.

“And not only are they working together, the competition amongst them is great, and that just makes for a great team each year.”