The Program: Running back by committee approach works for Unity

Nov. 2—TOLONO — The list of accomplished seasons by running backs at Unity is lengthy.

From Henry Deters rushing for 2,937 yards in 2005 to Jonas Dees producing 2,813 yards in 2000 to Conner Grace, Justin Deters and Mitch Negangard all rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 2012, veteran Rockets coach Scott Hamilton has not lacked for big-play abilities in the run game.

He doesn't necessarily lack one this season, either. But Unity has gone about its run game in a different way than in years past. Mainly because of a preseason hamstring injury to junior Garrett Richardson.

See, Richardson burst on the area scene in the second week of the 2022 season, rushing for 239 yards and five touchdowns in a 50-7 win at St. Joseph-Ogden. But then Richardson took a back seat to Matt Brown — who missed the SJ-O game with an injury — with Brown eventually rushing for 1,943 yards on a Unity team that reached the Class 3A state semifinals.

Unity doesn't have a 1,000-yard rusher this season yet. Doesn't even have a 500-yard rusher, either, before the Rockets (8-2) host DuQuoin (10-0) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Hicks Field in a 3A second-round playoff game.

The Rockets have relied more on the arm of sophomore quarterback Dane Eisenmenger, who has thrown for 1,921 yards, 26 touchdowns and only three interceptions in completing 69 percent of his passes, than maybe Hamilton intended to before the season started.

But back when practices got going in early August, Unity thought it would have the 6-foot, 185-pound Richardson available all season. That didn't happen after Richardson sustained a hamstring injury, causing him to miss the season-opening 27-12 win against Prairie Central before he rushed for 44 yards on nine carries in a 38-35 loss to St. Joseph-Ogden on Sept. 1. But Richardson reaggravated the injury against the Spartans and didn't return to the field until Oct. 6 at Rantoul.

So a committee approach to the running back position ensued. Unity has rushed for 2,141 yards this season as a team, with senior Eric Miebach producing a team-high 494 yards on 62 carries and six touchdowns.

Richardson is next in line with 399 rushing yards on 62 carries and six touchdowns, while senior Halen Daly filled a crucial need early in the season and has rushed for 361 yards on 50 carries and six touchdowns.

Sophomore Caden Hensch (339 rushing yards on 48 carries, three TDs) and Eisenmenger (218 rushing yards on 37 carries, two TDs) have also picked up yards when the Rockets have needed them, along with Brock Suding taking a break from his linebacker role to help run the ball at times. Suding, the Rockets' leading tackler with 140, has produced 72 rushing yards on 13 carries and four touchdowns in primarily goal-line situations.

"We've been able to rotate running backs in all year, and they've all excelled in certain parts of the season," Hamilton said. "Garrett is the combination of maybe what Eric and Halen both are. Richardson being healthy is a big key."

Mainly because it allows the 6-2, 195-pound Miebach to play a prominent role defensively at a safety spot and frees him up to make plays elsewhere on offense when the Rockets need that.

Miebach made 16 tackles during the Rockets' 35-21 first-round playoff win last Saturday at Williamsville, but also broke off a 59-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that sealed the win and has 17 catches for 276 yards and three touchdowns this season.

"I enjoyed running the ball while I had to, but I don't mind that Garrett is back at all," Miebach said. "It takes some pressure off me, that's for sure."

Daly got most of his carries before Richardson returned to the lineup, a pleasant surprise for the 5-11, 185-pound senior who went into this season expecting to mainly contribute on defense and special teams.

"It was weird because I thought I was going to play defense the whole year, and then all of a sudden, I got the ball," Daly said. "I tried to make the most of it."

Watching Daly do just that was a positive sign, according to his teammates.

"It was nice to see how well he stepped up," Miebach said. "He was always our running back coming up with our class, so we knew he could do it. Once he got the opportunity, he did a great job."

For all the different running backs the Rockets have employed this season, senior center Nate Bleecher said it has made the offense more versatile but is glad Richardson has returned for the stretch run of the season.

"Garrett and Eric are a lot better in space, and Halen is a lot better about just plowing forward," Bleecher said. "I think it's really situational, but it's a nice advantage having Garrett back because it makes our running and passing game more complete."

Richardson fared well in his first playoff game last Saturday, rushing for 78 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown. It's not only his on-field production, but laid-back and goofy nature that helps out his teammates.

"Garrett doesn't get frustrated too often," Miebach said, "and he's a pretty cheerful guy who lightens the mood."

Such as how Richardson responded to a question about any pointers he gave Miebach early in the season.

"I gave him a few," Richardson said with a grin spreading on his face, "but he didn't really listen to me. He did his own thing. I let him be."

Whoever Hamilton calls on to carry the ball for Unity the rest of the season, they have the added benefit of having already achieved success this season.

That aspect isn't something the Rockets take for granted as this group tries to become the 17th Unity team to advance to the state quarterfinals in program history on Saturday afternoon.

"If this guy is out and this guy is in, it doesn't make much of a difference," Miebach said. "We can all run the ball well."