Marcus Brantley doesn’t want to say ‘I told you so,’ but his intuition has shown to be as good as his play this season.
On paper, coach Ron Wisniewski thought it made sense to put the Red Mountain star at wide receiver to begin the year. The Mountain Lions had three running backs returning and no one on the outside, so the addition of a go-to wideout would balance the offensive attack.
“I wanted to play running back, but he shot me a down a few times,” Brantley said.
The year started well enough, as the Mountain Lions scored 24 points and beat a tough Avondale Westview team by 10 in the season opener. After that, though, the offense only mustered 14 points in back-to-back losses to Mesquite and Brophy, respectively.
The game against the Broncos was a lost cause late, but Brantley returned a kickoff for a touchdown and finished the strong run with a stiff arm, and Wisniewski gave in. When Brantley showed up for film study the next day, he was told he was moving to running back.
Brantley smiled at the teammates he had been commiserating with for weeks, many of them certain the switch would lead to increased offensive production.
“We knew the whole time,” Brantley said. “We’ll give the credit to coach, though, for making the move.”
Red Mountain has looked like a different team since that 1-2 start with four consecutive victories to vault to No. 4 in the Tribune’s rankings, and has outscored its opponents 148-40 in that period. A Lions team that some thought was a notch below the elite opened eyes — including their own — with a 20-13 win over defending state runners-up Desert Ridge on Sept. 30.
“It was a big confidence-booster,” tight end Billy Freeman said. “Just from the very beginning, we were beasting them on the line. At that point, we knew we could do it.”
Brantley has been the catalyst to the hot streak. He has 35 carries for 431 yards and a touchdown since moving to the running back position, an average of 12.3 yards per rush.
Cougar Garcia is the power-style running back, but the addition of the speedy Brantley in the backfield has added a new dimension.
“When Brantley touched the ball, the acceleration through the hole was so much different,” Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock said. “As Brantley goes, Red Mountain goes.”
Wisniewski was sure of Brantley’s talent from the get-go, and thought he could take advantage of his skills at wide receiver. But he had only four catches for 52 yards through the first three games, and Wisniewski knew a change had to be made.
“A defense can, to some degree, control how may touches a receiver gets if they want to take him away from you,” Wisniewski said. “They can’t do anything about controlling his touches when you put him at tailback.”
Brantley’s position switch hasn’t been the only reason for the improved offensive play. Freeman dealt with a pair of shoulder injuries early on but is finally getting healthy. Wide receiver Daniel McGill also missed multiple weeks with a shoulder injury but has returned. Junior quarterback Mason Thorman only played a handful of games last year on junior varsity because of disciplinary reasons, but has progressed well as the season has moved forward.
“I can definitely see that our momentum is starting to pick up,” Thorman said. “We’re getting everything together at the right time.”
The Lions don’t need to be perfect on offense because the defense has quietly been one of the state’s best lately. Their 93 points allowed is fifth-best in Division I, and the only time they have given up more than 14 points in a game came against Brophy. The Broncos scored 31 points in that contest, although one touchdown came on a punt return by Devon Allen and another came after an interception was returned to the 1-yard line.
With a tough defense and an emerging offense, Red Mountain has thrust itself back into the mix of contenders. It may not have seen likely after a 1-2 start, but Wisniewski saw light at the end of that dark stretch.
“We were not happy with how things were going, but everything we had to fix was stuff we could fix at practice,” he said. “We knew it was a matter of time. We just needed some confidence.”
Plus Brantley in the backfield.
“I had been a running back all my life, but last year at Gilbert they put me in the slot,” he said. ”I was so happy to go back. I love running back. I knew if I went there everything would open up.”