RAVENNA – When Ravenna junior quarterback Conner Kilbourne learned that new head coach Doug Samuels was implementing a new spread offense, with a heavy focus on the passing game, he had mixed feelings.
None of his thoughts were necessarily negative. But for a player who operated out of a run-heavy I-formation or wishbone since he started playing quarterback in second grade, it was uncharted territory.
“I was excited at first, but also a little nervous,” Kilbourne said. “I was worried that since it was so new to us, we were going to make a lot of mistakes.
“But then we started getting everyone together for drills at the end of the school year, and then working out in the weight room. And by the time we got to team camp during the summer, everything was clicking.”
The new spread offense has worked out quite well for Ravenna through three games.
Kilbourne is flourishing in distributing the ball to a talented cast of receivers, and the 2-1 Bulldogs are lighting up the scoreboard for an average of 46 points per game. They’ll look to go to 3-0 in the West Michigan Conference on Friday when they battle Shelby.
Kilbourne (5-11, 165 pounds) has passed for an impressive 749 yards and nine touchdowns, and has also added two more scores on the ground.
It’s been a stunning change for a program that built a reputation as a dominant running team under former coaches Dusty Fairfield and David Smith.
“We haven’t had more than one wide receiver in the last 35 years,” Samuels said with a laugh.
When Samuels took over in late February, he knew he couldn’t throw a ton of new information at his players and expect it to stick. Some of the concepts, he said, would be like a foreign language.
“The kids were really receptive to it from the get-go,” Samuels said. “I think they were ready for some change. I knew there were a lot of basketball kids on the roster, so I tried to use some of the verbiage based on basketball, just so it could be easily recalled. Eventually, you want them to react instead of having to think about what they need to do.”
The passing game has flourished because Ravenna returned a lot of quick-twitch, athletic players who thrive as receivers in the spread, including Grant Parker, Calvin Schillo, Josh Cox and Jack Emery. Each has hauled in touchdown passes from Kilbourne.
Senior running back Garry Johnson is the X-factor in the offense, adding a strong ground element to the attack. He tallied 197 yards on 32 carries in the Bulldogs’ 53-26 comeback win over North Muskegon last Friday.
“We’ve shown we can win in different ways, which is encouraging going forward,” Samuels said.
But it’s Kilbourne who is running the show at the quarterback position. Samuels said his skill set stood out during early spring drills and throughout the summer, when he was a leader in the weight room and at 7-on-7 passing camps.
“He’s very accurate throwing the ball, and that’s what we need to be effective offensively,” Samuels said. “There’s a lot on his shoulders, because we trust him to make a lot of the calls at the line of scrimmage. He’s a very smart player.”
While he doesn’t possess breakaway speed, Kilbourne is still a capable runner, according to Samuels. He’s patient waiting for holes to develop and decisive when bursting through them.
Kilbourne credits Ravenna’s offensive line, which he says has allowed him to be hit “only once or twice” this season. The unit, led by massive senior left tackle Dale Young, also includes senior tackle Alex Straub, junior guards Chase Shelly and Derek Place, and junior center Hunter Funk.
“When we execute, it’s just exciting to think about, because I think we can play with anybody and we can be one of the top teams in our league,” Kilbourne said. “Every day, we talk about championship effort. Coach always says we have to bring it every single play. And when we’re watching film, the list is getting shorter and shorter every week of those who didn’t.”