LOUISA As dictated by a deteriorating game situation, Alan Short had little choice but to discard his best-laid plans.
That wasn’t an unusual theme for the preseason and early stages of the 2020 Lawrence County campaign. COVID-19 cost the Bulldogs a chunk of their game and practice schedules early on, and their starting quarterback and his understudy transferred out of state shortly before the season was to begin.
So Lawrence County, without anyone who had thrown a varsity pass left on the roster, turned to defensive back Alex Strickland to run its offense. Strickland’s athleticism and ball-carrying ability had been sufficient to earn him projected touches, Short said then, but as his role expanded greatly and rapidly due to necessity, the Bulldogs intended to ease Strickland in by leaning heavily on a stout rushing attack.
“Our thought process with Alex never having played quarterback was, we wanted to just give him enough,” Short said. “We didn’t want to put it where he had to go out and win the game on his shoulders.”
But before long, Lawrence County couldn’t wait anymore.
The Bulldogs trailed Pike County Central in their second game, one they felt they had to have, by six points. Lawrence County found itself 62 yards from the end zone, 11 yards away from the first-down marker on fourth down, and less than a minute from a loss to the Hawks.
So the Bulldogs — whose identity has been bulling between the tackles and reading opportunities for option pitches for all of Short’s tenure as head coach to that point and for that matter most of the history of the program — threw the ball. Strickland connected with Jake Derifield for 35 yards and a first down.
So the Bulldogs threw it again. They drew a pass interference penalty on Pike County Central to get in prime scoring range.
And — why not? — Lawrence County went to the air once more. Strickland found Andrew Tackett for the game-tying TD from 8 yards out with 12 seconds to play, and Logan Southers booted the Bulldogs past the Hawks, 29-28.
“He’s just a winner,” Short said of Strickland. “That’s the easiest way to put it.”
The two-minute drive indeed got Lawrence County a victory. It also served as an audition for Strickland — a dual-threat quarterback unlike any other the Bulldogs have had in Short’s six-year tenure as head coach — to open up the offense a bit.
“I just go out and do my own thing the best I can,” Strickland said.
He’s made it worth it. At some schools and in some offenses Strickland’s senior-season passing line entering Friday’s playoff opener against Magoffin County would seem modest: 29 of 54, 630 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
But the Bulldogs are just three seasons removed from starting QB Noah West — a brute in the run game not known for his using his throwing arm to do anything but stiff-arm and bull over hapless opposing defenders — not even throwing for 100 yards in his entire senior season.
So by those standards, Strickland’s statistics are a positive windfall, but his imprint on the program goes well beyond them, Short said.
It can also be seen in Lawrence County’s 7-3 regular-season mark, which included victories the first six times the Bulldogs took the field.
“In 11 years (on staff) we’ve had lots of good leaders here,” Short said, “kids that talked the talk and played the game the right way and walked the walk, but Alex is probably one of the top two or three kids we’ve had as a leader. Our entire team feeds off him. He brings juice every single day.”
‘Kinda His Show’
Short has said this is the season he’s waited his whole 17-year coaching career to have, and this is the team he’s hoped for. After all, Lawrence County boasts about six backs and receivers who are threats to score at any moment and a gritty defense.
Blue Fletcher, Dylan Ferguson, Douglas Hall and Strickland each have at least 500 rushing yards and five touchdowns. And Kaden Gillispie and Nick Collinsworth are game-breakers in the receiver positions.
Last August, Short was less worried about getting Strickland ready to orchestrate that embarrassment of riches than simply getting plays off.
“It was a work in progress,” Short said, fighting back a grin. “The first day that (Strickland) came out as a quarterback, honestly, he struggled taking a snap.”
Those days seem long ago, with Strickland much more comfortable calling signals, and with everything that comes before that.
“After playing this position for two years, it’s kinda his show,” Short said of Strickland. “He makes a lot of check-offs, changes plays, switches sides, all those things that quarterbacks here in the past have done.”
Strickland has rushed for 500 yards and five touchdowns and also owns two defensive TDs. He has a 45-yard pick-six and a 47-yard scoop-and-score.
Strickland’s inclination is still to run with the ball, he said, and he does it effectively, but has learned to help Lawrence County’s other playmakers do their jobs too.
“Sometimes I think about running it and wide receivers are open,” Strickland said, “so I think, ahh, better show them some love and throw the ball a little bit.”
The Bulldogs’ patented rushing game, with triple-option, belly-option, misdirection and three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust components, and their newfound ability to move it through the air feed each other.
Opponents can no longer load the box on Lawrence County, which gives the Bulldogs’ backs space to maneuver too.
“When (opponents) know they gotta stop Dylan Ferguson coming up the hole,” Collinsworth said, “it automatically makes linebackers move down and it make safeties come hard. You got Doug Hall who can come off the edge, you got Blue coming off the edge, and then everybody has to commit. Corners have to play in, and that just allows the speed of me and guys like Kaden Gillispie to get downfield and get open, and Alex can throw the wide-open ball. It’s definitely huge to have guys like that to run the ball.”
The result is an offense dangerous on any down and distance and in any facet. The Bulldogs have averaged 40.3 points per game against opponents not named Belfry or Raceland.
“It’s pretty great to be able to come out and not just run the ball, but be able to throw the ball, too,” Strickland said. “We have a well-rounded team, so it’s good to use all the athletes we have.”
Strickland is “the one that stirs the drink” in that group, his coach said.
“He could do anything,” Short said. “He could be a true spread quarterback. He could be a true Wing-T quarterback. He could be successful in whatever avenue that we decided to go. We’re just very thankful and lucky and blessed to have him.”
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