Rain or shine, Mission Prep was a throwing team last year that tallied at least 150 passing yards in every game it played.
This season, however, the Royals have had an identity makeover.
Senior running back Patrick Laird has run wild in just about every game he has played this season — tallying at least 100 yards on the ground in each of the Royals’ 13 games.
Laird is sitting on 3,068 yards and 32 touchdowns rushing, making him the third-leading rusher in yards in the state and the sixth-leading rusher in the nation, according to MaxPreps.com.
At the beginning of the season, Laird told Royals coach Chad Henry he’d like to reach 3,000 yards rushing.
Henry was skeptical. Specifically, Henry envisioned more of a balanced run-and-pass attack.
But right off the bat, after just 21 passing yards in a 42-0 loss in their opener at Christian in El Cajon, the Royals relied on Laird to carry much of the offensive burden as sophomore quarterback Patrick Miller continued to develop.
Laird had 229 yards on 41 carries in a 24-21 win over Rio Hondo Prep in the second game of the season. Then he racked up 248 yards against St. Genevieve a week later in a 36-33 win.
Now, a 200-yard plus game is old hat for him, and three times he has topped 300 yards rushing — peaking at 343 and five touchdowns in a 68-51 win over Farmersville.
“Patrick (Laird) is the kind of guy that if you tell him he can’t do something, he wants to prove you wrong,” Henry said. “When he told me he’d get 3,000, I said, ‘We’ll see.’
“This year, I can’t praise him enough for how well he prepared himself to take on the role he has. He ran dunes, he worked on his 40-yard start and sprint times and his agility. He has prepared himself to hold up to this many touches.”
Laird has suffered a dislocated pinky and a minor groin injury this season, but no serious injuries.
Henry is quick to point out that Miller, however, has been solid in the passing game to keep teams from keying too much on Laird.
Henry didn’t want Miller to try to emulate Tribune County Player of the Year Tyler Baty, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards last year, including about 1,300 to speedy receiver Joey Hall. Baty and Hall both graduated.
But he also has pushed Miller to take advantage of his throwing opportunities.
Henry said he has been effective in third-down situations and Miller and receiver Evan Talbert, the team’s “best hands,” have connected well in red-zone situations. Talbert has 15 touchdown receptions among his 34 catches.
“We’ve learned to communicate with each other,” Henry said. “Sometimes I need to let him process a situation, a mistake, and then he’ll come to me and talk about it. I could yell at him, but I know that’s not going to work.”
Miller, who has a strong arm and good mechanics, hit Laird on a well-thrown pass to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown last week against Desert. He also completed a throw to Talbert on a clutch third down — showing flashes of his ability and future potential.
Henry, a former Cal Poly quarterback, said Miller’s 22-6 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions displays a quality season. Miller also has quietly tallied more than 1,300 yards through the air.
The identity might have changed, but Mission Prep’s reputation as a football program is better than ever, according to junior offensive lineman Joseph Casacca.
“Last year, I’d walk around town with my Mission Prep shirt on and people would ask me about the team and wonder if we were any good,” Casacca said. “This year, they’re saying, ‘Hey, you guys are doing great.’ They know who we are.”