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Willmar Football: A revitalized run game

Willmar's backfield sprinted out of the gate to start the 2018 season. And no one has been able to slow down the Cardinals' ground game since. With a three-headed attack featuring quarterback Drey Dirksen and halfbacks Ethan Roux and Alex Wicklif...

Drey Dirksen, Alex Wickliff and Ethan Roux have combined to help the Willmar running game average 305.5 yards per game at the midway point of the 2018 season. In 2017, the Cardinals averaged 136.6 rushing yards per game. Joe Brown / Tribune
Drey Dirksen, Alex Wickliff and Ethan Roux have combined to help the Willmar running game average 305.5 yards per game at the midway point of the 2018 season. In 2017, the Cardinals averaged 136.6 rushing yards per game. Joe Brown / Tribune

Willmar's backfield sprinted out of the gate to start the 2018 season. And no one has been able to slow down the Cardinals' ground game since.

With a three-headed attack featuring quarterback Drey Dirksen and halfbacks Ethan Roux and Alex Wickliff, the Cardinals' run game has helped vault the offense into one of the best in Class AAAA.

In 2017, the team finished with 1,229 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on 278 carries over nine games.

Through four games in 2018, Willmar has 1,222 yards and 16 scores on 144 attempts for an average of 305.5 rushing yards per game. Willmar's offense ranks third in AAAA with 45.3 points per game.

"Compared to last year, I think we're more offensively sound," said Dirksen, who leads Willmar into its Homecoming game against Moorhead on Friday with 429 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 42 carries.

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"We trust each other and are making great reads," he said.

After looking over to Wickliff and Roux, Dirksen added, "These two guys, they make outstanding run plays and I really give that to our line, too."

Before talking about their rushing skills, the backfield trio was quick to compliment the offensive line's role in the resurgent run game.

"They're the ones doing all the work, getting big holes that open up for me and Alex to use our speed and get going," said Roux, who has 258 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries.

Said Wickliff, who has run for 256 yards and four touchdowns on 18 attempts, "I give all the glory to the line. I can't do much without them."

Dirksen and Roux were also the team's top rushers in 2017. In five starts at quarterback, Dirksen ran the ball 87 times for 383 yards and three touchdowns while Roux also had 87 carries for 348 yards and eight scores.

A year later, both have become smarter runners, especially Dirksen, who has done a better job making teams account for the pass when he scrambles in the backfield.

"Last year, if Drey's first look wasn't there, he was off running," said Cardinals head coach Jon Konold. "He was really impatient about it and wasn't comfortable because he didn't understand the offense like he does this year. If he does have to scramble, he keeps his eyes downfield until he sees what's going on. If there's a path, he takes it. A lot of it is instincts."

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With Roux and Wickliff, Konold has a good problem to deal with: Finding a way to share the ball.

"They get on my case," Konold said with a laugh. "They only get six-to-10 carries a game. If they all get 10 carries, that's 30 carries for everyone. We got to share the wealth. They compliment each other really well. It's nice to keep them fresh."

Roux has been more of a hard-nosed, north-south runner.

"I'm always going straight forward," said Roux, a junior. "Alex, he can make people miss a lot."

Wickliff chimed in about Roux, "When we need five-to-10 yards, he's got it."

Wickliff has been more of an open-field force, averaging 14.2 yards per carry. Not bad considering Wickliff was unable to play running back as a junior.

"I played mostly corner because I had an injury to my hand so I couldn't hold the ball," Wickliff said. "I went to defense and balled out there. This has been new to me."

The internal competition has only made Roux and Wickliff better.

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"We've had more big plays than we had all of last year already," Konold said. "It's just because of the competition they have and how they practiced."

Konold added, "It just opens up a few more options. You can add a couple things to the playbook you couldn't do before. You got a dual-threat in the backfield, you got the quarterback and running back. And with our RPO (run-pass option) stuff, it helps if the defense is cheating a certain way."

The second half presents a tougher schedule for Willmar. Starting with Friday's Homecoming game against the Spuds, the Cardinals will also face challenges in St. Cloud Apollo and Becker before wrapping up the regular season against Rocori.

Even with a difficult slate of games in front of them, the ground game isn't about to slow down.

"We've just gotta stay fresh and stay healthy," Wickliff said. "Continue what we're doing and do it well."

"We've got to do what we've been doing," Dirksen added, "start fast, score early, ut the pressure on them and go from there."

Roux closed it out, "We just gotta keep grinding. Stay on top and be better than the others."

Area schedule

(Games at 7 p.m. unless noted)

Friday

Moorhead at Willmar, 6:30 p.m.

New London-Spicer at Litchfield

BBE at Parkers Prairie

Paynesville at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted

Montevideo at ACGC

Benson at BOLD

Minnewaska at Morris/Chokio-Alberta

Dawson-Boyd at Murray County Central

KMS at New York Mills

Canby at Lac qui Parle Valley

MACCRAY at Russell-Tyler-Ruthton

Mountain Lake at Renville County West

Yellow Medicine East at Lakeview

Hancock at Wheaton/Herman-Norcross

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
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