PORT COQUITLAM — In the preseason, the Terry Fox Ravens didn’t look at their compact and largely-untested senior running back as an X-factor kind of player.
Yet as PoCo’s Triple-A No. 4-ranked Ravens (3-1) hunker down Friday (7 p.m.) at Coquitlam’s Percy Perry Stadium to host Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers (2-2) in the Central Division opener for both teams, there is no doubt that it’s a role which Xyon Fleary has lovingly embraced.
When the scales of offensive balance shifted following a shoulder injury to starting quarterback Owen Sieben back on Sept. 16 against Victoria’s Mt. Douglas Rams, it was the 5-foot-4, 142-pound Fleary who became the focal point, and to say he’s run with it ever since is a massive understatement.
Last week, in a 27-3 road win at the Apple Bowl against the host Kelowna Owls, Fleary rushed for 301 yards and all four of his team’s touchdowns.
And entering play Friday against traditional rival Tweedsmuir, the kid with more moves than a chess prodigy is leading all of B.C. high school football in rushing yardage, carrying 85 times over four games for 664 yards and six touchdowns.
All of that is precursor to the old adage of not judging a book by its cover, or in Fleary’s case, a running back by any perceived lack of physical stature.
To him, football has become a study in the nuance of fakes, feigns and deception.
“That is the No. 1 thing to me, in being able to go out there and read a situation on the field,” explains Fleary of the fact that the game can be as cerebral as you choose to make it. “Being able to read a situation, and then to be able to manoeuvre around people? That feeling is unparalleled.”
Take a look at his game tape, and after one or two clips, you learn so quickly the mainstays of his game.
First, he loves and trusts his offensive line to the point where all of his best carries come when he totes it between the tackles.
“I feel like I have the the strongest offensive line in the country,” Fleary states. “So it’s easy to run inside without fear.”
Second, he has a multitude of spin moves, all of them themes and variations on an end goal to leave would-be tacklers flat-footed.
“I have been trying to vary it by how I approach going into it,” he adds. “Do I look for contact first? Do I lean first? There’s a lot of different ways to approach it.”
Terry Fox head coach Tom Kudaba, the wily, old former Simon Fraser and B.C. Lions’ interior lineman, prefers a much simpler description.
“He’s really slippery… I think that would be the best way to describe him,” begins Kudaba. “The spin move is an instinctive move for him. We don’t teach kids those kinds of moves. We teach them basic skills. Anything that comes after that, they improvised on their own.”
The season is just beginning and there are giant hurdles on the road ahead for all teams, yet for the Ravens, there is a culture of success and inclusion being built through the offensive trenches which is not unlike one experienced back in the mid-to-late 1970s with the hometown B.C. Lions.
“We knew that he was the guy and with that, we kind of felt a part of that success as an offensive lineman,” begins Kudaba, who for four seasons beginning in 1978 was a key blocker for the powerfully-built running back Larry Key.
“When you have a thoroughbred running back like Larry Key,” continued Kudaba of the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Florida State star who rushed for 4,472 yards and 46 touchdowns over his career with the Lions, “we as offensive linemen might not have gotten our names in the paper on a regular basis, but we understood we all helped with the team’s success. And Xyon is doing the same thing here. He’s learned to give a pat on the back to his offensive line. He encourages them and he’s positive with them, just like Larry was with us when he was being interviewed by the press. He made sure that everyone knew we were also a big part of our success.”
And that largely-senior Ravens group — left tackle Axel Statton, left guard Chris Soto, centre Kaiden Exner, the right guard platoon of Diego Gonclaves and Adam Paulus, and right tackle Hayden Cote — has been outstanding.
From his spot run-blocking at left tackle, Statton has been in the perfect position to see some pretty incredible feats afoot courtesy of Fleary.
“We on the O-line know that Xyon is going to get extra yardage for us so we all work hard to create that for him,” begins the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Statton, who doubles at defensive end. “It’s amazing because there will be some situations where it looks like he’s going to get tackled for a loss and he’ll just spin out of a tackle and gain 20 yards like it’s nothing. We want to work hard for him, and we work harder and harder every day.”
It’s refreshing to know that whether its high school or the pros, whether it’s today or 40-plus years ago… that the chemistry between a great running back and his offensive line can still be the heartbeat of a team.
Tom Kudaba saw it back in 1978 with the Lions when he took his spot at right guard and helped pave the way for a rookie named Larry Key to rush for 1,054 yards and gain another 504 through the air.
And the old ball coach is seeing it 44 years later with a blue-chip O-line and an X-factor kid named Xyon Fleary.
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