LANGLEY — It’s the kind of highlight that in a film-room session just seems to jump off the screen and get your heart pumping.
Last Saturday, in its Subway Bowl B.C. Double A semifinal clash against Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham Grizzlies, Langley running back Kai Thomas took a hand-off, made the first wave of tacklers miss, then went straight to the opposition end zone on a 52-yard touchdown run as part of a 33-32 win.
Over a regular season in which no AA running back came within 800-plus yards of him, it goes without saying that stopping the 5-foot-9, 165-pound senior is the single most challenging assignment being digested this week by the Saints’ title-game foes.
“As we’ve watched film, we have to correct the mistakes that so many different teams have made against him,” said Vernon head coach Sean Smith on Wednesday, as his No. 1-ranked Panthers prepared to defend their Subway Bowl title Saturday (4 p.m.) at B.C. Place Stadium.
“Teams have underestimated (Thomas’) speed and have taken (tackling) angles against him that are not quite right for that speed,” continued Smith. “If we want to do better, we have to take the better angles and force him back to the help. We won’t stop him as one or two people. We have to try to do it as a complete defence that gang tackles and flows to the ball.”
Thomas rushed for three majors last week against the Grizzlies.
Over nine games this season, he carried 132 times for 1,736 yards and 24 touchdowns. The next closest? His teammate, fullback Harshaad Jouhal, who has rumbled for 898 yards and 10 majors.
The mere fact that Langley boasts the two top runners in B.C. Double A football is daunting enough of a challenge for any team to try to stop.
Jouhal has been beast-like in the post-season and presents his own share of challenges, yet if you had to pick one player in Saturday’s final who carries that snap-to-snap home run potential, it’s Thomas, who isn’t just quick, but also a guy who’s proved any doubters wrong about tough he can be.
“He has a lot of explosive power,” says Langley head coach Ryk Piche. “Lots of guys will get their hands on him, but he breaks tackles, and he is able to drag guys as well.”
Adds Vernon’s Smith: “Sometimes you’ll find a smaller guy who can shed tackles, and who can run like they are a lot bigger and (Thomas) has a combination of that stuff. He’s got the straight-line speed on the sidelines, but also the ability to run inside and shake a tackle. That is a tough combo.”
Off course, with the wealth of players the Saints have at running back where the depth chart sits a legitimate five deep, Langley can stay with their running game but give it a different look by simply leaning on another player.
“(Jouhal) is a different style player but not any less effective,” said Smith of the 5-foot-10, 225-pound bruiser. “He has massive tree-trunk legs and thick hips, and big guys like that are hard to tackle. The key for us is, we can’t just grab tackle. Our motto all week has been about form tackling, getting low because he is so powerful.”
Of course, as Piche correctly stresses in any discussion about the success of his team’s running game, the key has been the play of the team’s mammoth yet athletic offensive line.
It’s led by a pair of seniors, both provincial all-star selections in 6-foot-4, 300-pound right tackle Dayton Boytillier and 6-foot-3, 280-pound centre Zach Rohan.
“I can remember Dayton being a bit like a St. Bernard puppy in Grade 8 and 9, really gangly and just learning the game,” smiles Piche. “This year, his step forward has been drastic. He’s developed a bit of tenacity and aggression and he’s showing that he likes to move people around.
“Zach is the leader on the line,” Piche adds. “He’s always reading defences, making the lines calls, and he’s what the coaches all call a ‘frame player’ because he’s always in the frame when you’re watching film.”
Vernon, of course, will present the stoutest test that Langley has seen this season, and the Saints will need to play ball-hawking defence like they did last week late against G.W. Graham to give themselves their best chance to dethrone the B.C. champs.
Yet that offensive line and everything it has generated this season is what has allowed Langley to make such a huge jump forward from a team which was bumped out of the playoffs a season ago by Ballenas in the opening wildcard round.
Langley has not played Vernon since the opening round of the 2015 Subway Bowl playoffs (a 28-27 Langley win at B.C. Place), when all of the current seniors were eighth graders.
Yet as Smith saw out of the corner of his eye last Saturday as the two teams played consecutive games under the dome, Langley’s offensive line is all grown up.
“We have not played them but they look pretty darn good,” began Smith. “At the high school level, when you get big guys like that, lots of times they are heavy and can’t move so well, so you can work around it.
“But they have five big guys that are also athletic, guys that are not gasping for air in the huddle. There is ‘bad’ big and ‘good’ big and they have ‘good’ big. They can move, they’re mean, they get into open space, all of those things. And they’ve got a line that rivals a U Sports line in terms of its size.”
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