LIBERTY — Senior running back Zac Willingham-Davis started this season ready to be the lead running back for Liberty North.
Before the season, Willingham-Davis said he felt like he needed to step his game up after receiving multiple scholarship offers including some from Division I schools.
Willingham-Davis spent the last two seasons playing the change-of-pace role in the backfield led by Keshawn Turner, who turned in back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the Eagles before graduating in the spring.
He took a step forward last year when he added 747 yards and eight touchdowns with a 6.4 yards-per-carry average that nearly matched Turner’s.
That duo helped propel the Eagles to a program-best 11-1 season.
Liberty North wasn’t able to replicate that winning percentage this season, but the Eagles relied on their running game once again on the way to a 9-2 record, which includes a district championship that eluded last year’s squad.
There are a few key factors in this season’s success down the stretch.
First is that the Eagles offensive line of seniors Brody Monaghan, Will Angel and Aydan Stigler along with juniors Wyatt Newcomer and Kameron Auch play physical football for four quarters, creating holes that Willingham-Davis consistently finds.
Another piece can be attributed to the other skilled runners, which include three quarterbacks and a group of change-of-pace runners led by Cayden Arzola. The junior running back delivered 473 yards and six rushing touchdowns.
But Willingham-Davis has been so impactful this year that he has not relied nearly as much on the one-two punch approach that he’s experienced since his grade school days sharing the backfield with current teammate Tyler Jenness — a duo dubbed “Thunder and Lightning.”
Now Willingham-Davis has become both the “Thunder” and the “Lightning.” He has become the entire “Storm.”
“He’s just built different,” said Jenness, who spends most of his time on defense now after being Willingham-Davis’ OG running mate. “He’s the best running back in KC. Without a doubt, no one else tops him.”
It’s hard to argue when looking at his stats and harder when you watch him play.
He is listed at 6-feet, 200 lbs on a Hudl profile that is likely outdated from before the powerhouse turned a stay-at-home order into a chance to keep building on his frame.
His hard work paid off as he scored half of his touchdowns in the second half, often when his team was trailing.
“When it gets to the fourth quarter, it becomes Zac’s show,” Eagles head coach Greg Jones said earlier in the season after Willingham-Davis broke free for a 54-yard go-ahead score to beat Park Hill. “He’s proved it week in and week out.”
Willingham-Davis’ weekly performances have totaled 1-yard shy of 1,400 yards on the season.
Defenses have their hands full trying to keep him contained and often have trouble stopping him from dragging them for extra yards after contact.
As tough as it is to tackle Willingham-Davis when he lowers his shoulders, the players and coaches on the opposing sideline know that he has to be stopped at the first level or he is not likely to be stopped at all.
Willingham-Davis has scored nine of his 20 rushing touchdowns from at least 25 yards out, including four from at least 54 yards and two of those from 80-plus yards.
Even his one touchdown reception this season was on a short screen pass that he matriculated into a 28-yard score against Blue Springs.
Once he gets free, the few defensive players that match the speed of Willingham-Davis in the open field are cornerbacks who are not usually well-equipped to stop him by themselves.
So it shouldn’t be surprising when the Eagles win a contest in a way similar to how they defeated Liberty in the Class 6 District 4 championship game, with sophomore Sam Van Dyne as the leading passer on a stat line of just two completions on three attempts.
That’s not to say the passing attack doesn’t come up big, as Van Dyne completed one of his two passes on a 21-yard touchdown that displayed pinpoint accuracy between two defenders to reach senior Davis Rockers on the go-ahead score in the game.
Of course, the play involved a play-action fake to Willingham-Davis to keep the defense honest. The defense knew Willingham-Davis was just as much of a threat to gain the same ground carrying the ball.
The rushing attack has been so potent that Van Dyne’s 33 yards through the air were more than enough for Liberty North.
“This time of year, you have got to be able to run the football to win,” Jones said after the district title game.
Liberty North can count on Willingham-Davis for that, as he finished with 196 yards and two rushing touchdowns against the Blue Jays.
He got a little help from Jenness, who took three carries for 17 yards late in the game, and junior Justis Braden, who picked up the Eagles’ final touchdown to seal it.
But Willingham-Davis will need to continue being a one-man wrecking crew as the Eagles head into a state semifinal matchup with Raymore-Peculiar, the only team other than Liberty to beat them this year.
The Panthers also ended Liberty North’s undefeated run a year ago, so this one could be sweet for Willingham-Davis and company.