Admirals’ offense taking new strides in 2017 state run

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Danville’s offense had a huge question mark entering this season.

That question mark has grown into a pivotal part of the Admirals offense.

Zach Dampier graduated last season with his name all over the state record books for passing statistics. Entering this season, Zach Thornton earned the starting spot and has taken off with it, after playing safety last year.

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“Replacing the quarterback that has thrown for the amount of yards that Zach Dampier did and the leadership that he provided, there was definitely a question mark in there,” Danville offensive coordinator Kyle Singleton said. “What we saw from Zach Thornton and what he was able to provide on the defensive side of the ball last year, his playmaking abilities that he had, we knew we had a chance to be pretty good. We had all of the offensive line returning, all of our skill guys returning, we knew we had a shot. We knew there would have to be some development, but the way that Zach Thornton has stepped in and played has been great.”

Thornton has thrown for 2,458 yards this season to go with 35 touchdowns. Last year, Dampier hit 3,574 yards and 43 touchdowns.

But Thornton’s added a different look: Dampier’s pocket passing was vital for the Admirals in 2016, and you can say the same about Thornton’s scrambling ability in 2017.

“He can make you look smart when you’ve got a bad play just because of his athletic ability,” Singleton said. “His playmaking ability, ability just to see space on a defense, he can bail you out sometimes. He can frustrate you at times too when you think you see something, he turns it into a scramble. But it’s been a difference with that, but his running ability has really helped the run game as well. Just the threat of him being able to take off and do some designed quarterback runs keeps defenses a little more honest against the pass game. It feeds itself and the offense benefits from it.”

Thornton has 93 runs for 409 yards and nine touchdowns this year: Some on designed runs, others on broken plays.

Dampier said having that extra threat has been a huge boost. He said he’s been to most games this season — he’s currently a redshirt freshman at Georgetown College.

“I think a running quarterback, especially with the spread and the athletes that we have, it just opens up defenses even more,” Dampier said. “It’s really hard to defend. You can cover everybody perfectly on the back side, and where I would throw it away, you’ve got a quarterback that can make you miss.”

After falling in the state title last year, Dampier was confident in Thornton and the team.

“I’ve been to a lot of games, where I’ve been redshirted, I came back and those guys are still like family to me,” Dampier said. “I’ve been happy to see them be so successful. Even after the state championship last year, I told them they’d be right back this year. I expected this, really.”

Offensive tackle Kishown Bartleson said having Thornton behind him has been a smooth transition.

“I kind of new after last year when we lost Zach, I knew that (Thornton) was going to be a good leader at quarterback for us,” Bartleson said. “When we’re passing, with him running, we don’t really know where he’s going to be, you just have to go out and do your job.”

Thornton said he came into this season with confidence because of how much he learned with Dampier.

“He led me to where I am today,” Thornton said. “He helped me get to this position. I just looked up to him when I was younger, he had good passing, a good ball, just everything.”

Thornton throws a pretty pass himself, and that’s something that doesn’t always happen with the proverbial “dual-threat” quarterback. But compared to the start of the year, Singleton said he sees a major difference.

“If you go back and look at his progression of throwing the football from July until now, he’s come light years,” Singleton said. “He’s always had the arm strength and the arm talent, the biggest thing that he needed was to just get those reps and get the fundamentals: Getting his feet set, pointing his head to the ball, just the little nuances of playing quarterback. Coach (Clay) Clevenger does a great job with him, working individual drills and being able to scramble and reset your feet. That ability he has has gotten so much better as the year has progressed.”

A huge benefit for Thornton has been that a majority of the Admirals’ offense returned from last year’s state-finalist season. Receivers D’Mauriae VanCleave, David Walker and Tanner Ford all have the ability to score on any play. Tight end Jaleel Warren has receivers’ hands and the size of a lineman, and running back Don Harris has continued to be a workhorse between the tackles.

“D’Mauriae is D’Mauriae. David is very athletic, Tanner has great hands, Jaleel is big and has hands,” Thornton said. “It’s a blessing to have them as much as it is to have the line, too. All around, we’re just talented and I believe in them.”

On the offensive line, the Admirals returned everyone.

“Returning all of our starters on the offensive line, we can do more in-game adjustments by not playing people both ways,” said Admirals’ offensive line coach J.R. Dean. “We can get them on the sideline and talk about what is going on during the game and make those adjustments based on what coach Singleton is seeing up in the box. I believe as you progress through the game and with their extra year, they’ve been able to adjust a lot quicker and pick up things easier during the game.”

The line is full of upperclassmen: Shawn Martinez, Pierce Haines, Isiah Singleton, Ryan Jackson, Jaylon Brashear and Bartleson. The Admirals have made a point to build more depth this season, and it has paid off.

Ryan Jackson went down against LCA in the state quarterfinals, but Brashear played his right guard position last year, so Dean said it was an “easy plug-in.”

Those big guys in front of him take a lot of the credit for his strong year, Thornton said.

“It’s a blessing, having the size that we have, we’re a little short but we’re strong,” he said. “They hold what they can and I try to do the rest.”

Brashear said the group of seniors has been together since he can remember.

“As a line, we’ve been doing good, we’re like brothers. We grew up together, like five years old,” he said.

Dean said that having that familiarity was a big help at the beginning of the year and putting Thornton in charge of the offense.

“Zach has grown up with all of these linemen, so they’ve really had that bond from youth league coming up,” Dean said.

The Admirals’ offensive line has held up to stiff tests — Twice against LCA, a close Boyle County game and a handful of games against 6A opponents.

“Coach Dean, Coach (Ernest) Dunn do a great job with those guys down there at practice,” Singleton said. “They’re always down in the farthest corner, out in the shade away from everybody else. We call them the ‘Mushroom Society,’ we keep them in the dark, feed them a bunch of crap, but they do a great job getting ready. They have that blue-collar mentality that they’re going to work and get better every week.”

Dampier said the coaching staff doesn’t get enough credit for their work.

“I think the coaches really don’t get enough credit,” he said. “Even at UK, (Mark) Stoops has been there I don’t know how long, and people are still saying to give him time. Coach Clev is in his fifth year and he’s gotten to the top, the state championship. He’s taken over and he’s got it going the right way. They push us, they’re great in-game coaches, they know what kind of plays to call and I think that’s really underrated. A lot of people think it’s our athletes, but it’s their strategy as well.”

Bartleson said that strategy, plus the hunger after falling just short of a title last season has the Admirals back in the state finals.

“At the beginning of the season, I think we came back hungry because we went to state and we lost,” he said. “We wanted to get back again. Now, we’ve got that chance to win it.”

Even with an undefeated record, the Admirals have taken their share of lumps this year. It took a come-from-behind victory against Boyle County, Waggener, Tates Creek and Lexington Christian during the regular season to keep a perfect year alive.

Those games — and every game this year — has been a learning experience, coach Dean said.
“Each game we’ve seen something different up front,” Dean said. “But it has built as the season has the season has gone along. Playing those tougher defensive linemen has helped prepare us come playoff time and has helped us get to this point.”