As the Bellevue football team and head coach Butch Goncharoff enter the season seeking the school’s eighth Class 3A state title since 2001, a lot of things have changed from years past. The players, of course. And some coaches. Even the field and the school around it have been altered. But the success of the program has always been constant.
So has the offense.
But not just any football player can thrive in Bellevue’s Wing-T offense. It takes a certain kind of player – with a certain mentality – to be a part of an offense that requires so much from each position on the field for even one play to work correctly.
But it starts with one trait, said senior quarterback Kendrick Van Ackeren.
“It’s pretty simple,” Van Ackeren said. “If you’re not tough, you should just go home.”
While Goncharoff has tinkered with the offense over the years depending on personnel – for example, adding a shotgun component last season – the essentials have remained the same. The backfield contains a quarterback and three running backs, any of whom can end up with the ball through a variety of fakes. Although the plays are basic – dives, sweeps, counters – the fakes make the real ball carrier difficult to spot.
The field manager for the Wolverines, the quarterback, has to be the straw that stirs the drink on offense. He doesn’t have to be the flashiest player, but he does have to be the most consistent. Bellevue’s been blessed with a string of stable young men behind center – Eric Block, Tommy Castle and Joe Joe Conner are just some recent examples of starters who have led the Wolverines offense to near perfection.
Learning the offense was difficult for Van Ackeren, a converted running back who made the switch his sophomore year. It was frustrating, he said. Many a practice would end with him heading home angry and upset because of the offense’s complexity.
“It will make you crazy,” Van Ackeren said. “You really need to have good footwork and a lot of mental stability. It takes a long time to learn it and you have to be mentally stable to get it down.”
It also means sacrifice. For the Wing-T to really work, defenders must bite on ball fakes. That means running backs are going to get hit and tackled on every play – if they do their job correctly.
“You have to be willing to make the sacrifice and take the hits,” said senior running back Joey Mangialardi. “Our coaches always say that a good fake is worth two blocks. The fakes are the most important part of our offense you just have to be willing to take a hit even though you don’t have the ball.”
Backs can pile up the yardage when the Wing-T is running at full tilt. Former University of Washington and Central Washington University running back J.R. Hasty ran for 5,493 yards and 92 touchdowns in his career at Bellevue. In the Wolverines first two playoff games last season, Mangialardi rushed for 219 yards and seven touchdowns.
“When they can make the ball disappear and I have to ask where it is, that’s when I know we have something there,” Goncharoff said.
Then there’s the play of the line. Being a huge, lumbering lineman isn’t as important as speed, footwork and mobility.
“Those are the big keys,” said senior Marcus Henry, a Boise State commit. “But you have to be nasty, too. You can’t play on this line without being nasty.”
In a year where Bellevue must replace 19 starters on both sides of the ball, keeping the offense moving will be key. Van Ackeren saw lots of playing time last year, but only Henry and Mangialardi return as entrenched starters on offense. The Wolverines could start more sophomores (10) than seniors (eight).
“We’re very, very young,” Goncharoff said. “With that comes a lot of fun and a lot of energy, but the flip side of that is a lot of mistakes. Every day is back to basics and it’s going to take a while for this team to form an identity.”
For years, that identity has been the Wing-T. This year should be no different. Success, Van Ackeren said, all comes back down to toughness.
“This is not powder puff, you are going to get hit every single play whether you are playing quarterback or offensive guard in this offense,” he said. “If you don’t want to get hit, don’t play offense.
“Actually, don’t play at all,” he added with a smile, “because our defense hits even harder.”