Three games into his senior campaign, a more polished Banner’s locked up the job in Scott Barbour’s revamped hurry-up look at St. Pauls and despite limited reps in the quickstrike attack, he’s at a near mastery level.
“A lot of guys are playing their way into leadership roles and Kane’s one of them,” St. Pauls head coach Trey Sasser said before Tuesday’s practice. “He hasn’t had a whole lot of playing time since his 10th grade year, but he’s certainly earned it this season.”
Banner is one of many Bulldog veterans flourishing without a huddle. Senior running back Shawn Williams is Robeson County’s leading rusher with 516 yards and six touchdowns while Banner has already thrown more touchdown passes — seven — than he did all of last season.
St. Pauls has scored eight times as many points — 148 — as it did at the same junction last season with the same players against the same opponents.
“Our offensive line is phenomenal and we’ve got a lot of returning starters that believe in the system and that gives us confidence,” Banner said. “I think I have more time to read the field and that’s relaxing.”
Barbour, a first-year assistant who left Jack Britt’s staff following Richard Bailey’s departure to Scotland, arrived in July and installed the majority of the offense in the three weeks leading up to the season. His unit is averaging 49.3 points and 507 yards per game — among the state leaders in both categories — and has only fumbled twice in 166 plays, eliminating hitches in tempo.
Barbour says the offense’s early success has more to do with the opposition’s lack of practice against the spread and less to do with its break-neck speeds and varying formations. A positive, too, has been St. Pauls’ ability to avoid negative plays behind the line of scrimmage.
“There’s room for improvement, but our execution has been pretty good,” Barbour said. “We’re doing a lot of things most teams haven’t seen yet. We don’t call many bad plays because we can change them from the sideline. Sometimes, we change plays when we line up and call something different before we run a bad play.”
Heavy on talent, second-year assistant coach Mike Setzer has helped develop a handful of interchangeable wide receivers that fit into Barbour’s passing scheme. Junior Javon Crawford has three highlight-reel touchdown receptions as the deep threat, Malik Livingston thrives as the possession guy and the combination of Deion Gilchrist and Jhamel Leonard split time in the slot.
That group makes an array of weapons for Banner whose thrown 42 passes with one interception. Poor offensive line play in the preseason jamboree has been cleaned up and the Bulldogs haven’t been marred by penalties.
“There’s a lot of plays where we’ve messed up but since we’ve got pretty good players, we make something out of it,” Barbour said.
Quick scoring drives haven’t come without a price. Losing the time of possession battle in favor of quick snaps has put added pressure on St. Pauls’ defense this season, a unit that has struggled mightily out the gate. Without the luxury of normal breathers on the sideline, tackling and gap control has been an issue that the Bulldogs are working on clearing up.
The high-octane offense made its debut against Gray’s Creek and lit up the Bears for 48 points and 25 first downs. Gray’s Creek fired back with 717 yards of total offense — without completing a pass — to spoil the season opener. Since that loss, the offense has settled in under Barbour’s tutelage with Banner and Williams shouldering most of the burden.
How easy has it looked for the Bulldogs when they’ve had the football? St. Pauls could’ve scored 60 in a win at Fayetteville Christian and the team rested its starters the majority of the second half last week at Southern Lee. On pace to score the most points in a decade, the Bulldogs face off with a West Bladen defense Friday night that has already given up 25 touchdowns in three games.
In the opener, Red Springs quarterback Blake Greene accounted for nine scores against the Knights in a 67-27 win. Though vastly different from the Red Devils’ Air Raid, St. Pauls will try and find similar holes in West Bladen’s 4-3 look while controlling the tempo on offense.
“One of the best things about the no-huddle is finding the advantage,” Barbour said. “There’s always an advantage somewhere that you can exploit and our kids have done a good job watching film and understanding where that advantage is.”
The gradual switch from the clock-eating I-Formation in 2007 into what is the now the modified hurry-up is exciting for Sasser. He’s never been against throwing the ball, but still considers St. Pauls’ winning recipe is geared toward the run.
“The Pistol has evolved because we were an I-Formation team for a long time and a lot of the plays are very similar,” said Sasser, who has been the program’s top dog the last four years. “Coach Barbour has simplified a lot of things and most of our plays can still be called and blocked the same way. It just looks a little different.”
For now, the plan is to keep eating away at the defense with Williams while sprinkling in a few deep balls from Banner to one of the many playmakers on the outside. The Three Rivers Conference season begins Sept. 28 at Red Springs and since the league’s inception in 2009, the Bulldogs hold a 9-6 record against league foes.
Fairmont sits at a conference-best 14-1 with three consecutive titles.
“We want to keep the no-huddle going because it puts a lot of pressure on defenses to get back on the ball and keep it running,” Sasser said.
Added Barbour: “We’re still a long ways away from where we need to be offensively. We’re talking about playing in November and in order to do that, we’ve got to get a lot better.”