Not many people personify Texas High School Football like Westlake Head Coach Todd Dodge. He was the first 3,000-yard passer in Texas High School Football history, started for Fred Akers at the University of Texas, and won four state championships at Southlake Carroll between 2002-06. He’s now at Westlake, where he expects to have another strong team in 2017. Here’s what he had to say when we talked to him about the upcoming season:
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: Here at TexasHSFootball.com, we’re big believers that even in this spread-you-out, basketball-on-grass era of football, games are still very much won in the trenches. Having said that, who are your big guys up front on offense, and how do you feel about that unit going into the fall?
COACH DODGE: We feel really good about it. Anytime you can have four guys returning that played a whole lot of football the year before. Garrett Aylor (6-4, 248) is a returning starter, 14-game starter at right tackle. Blake Webster (6-0, 245) is a 14-game starter at center. You’ve got Luke Armstrong (6-3, 245), who was a nine-game starter at left guard, and he’s moving to left tackle. And then you have Luke Wilkin, who Luke was a backup guard for us last year but played a bunch as a H-back/tight end. He’s kind of one of those guys that wore two numbers. He had a 60-number and an 80-number. So we got four guys coming back that played a lot of football and that’s not the norm so I feel really good about that group.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: As someone who played quarterback at the University of Texas and coached Division I FBS football at North Texas, what do you say to guys like Sam Ehlinger and Levi Jones, who recently graduated from Westlake, as they embark on a college football career at the Division I FBS level?
COACH DODGE: One thing that I tell them is you make sure when you get there that you understand that the first 30 days you’re there, make no mistake about it, that’s your one chance to make a tremendous impression on your coaches, and probably more importantly, your teammates. I told Sam that. You know, he graduated early. I told him, you know, you never get another chance and a lot of people around that organization are going to make decisions about you on exactly who you are in the first 30 days you’re there.
So go in, keep your mouth shut and be a worker. The next thing I told both of them is, you know, absolutely everyday take inventory of things that you can control. Your attendance, your effort, your attitude. Don’t pay any attention at all to things you can’t control. And don’t be someone who during your career is going to transfer at the drop of a hat.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: Running back Nakia Watson returns for his senior year after rushing for 1,648 yards and 22 touchdowns as a junior. Wisconsin, a college football program known for churning out great running backs, offered him a scholarship over the summer. What is it that you think makes Watson so special?
COACH DODGE: Well, he runs very angry. He’s just a real physical guy. He’s an extremely strong athlete in the weight room. The fun thing about the kid is he had a tremendous year and did some really good things. He’s a whole lot faster than people probably think he is at 230 pounds. He can get up and roll pretty good. So I think he’s a versatile guy, catches the ball really well out of the backfield. He’s not near as good as he’s going to be, though. He could be so much better his senior year than he was his junior year for us. His pad level needs to come down. His blocking needs to improve. But he’s just one of those guys that is just extremely powerful as a runner.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: I know you would have rather had Sam Ehlinger not get hurt and play all of 2016, but how valuable was it get some of those other guys reps? And how do you feel about the quarterback situation with fall camp right around the corner?
COACH DODGE: Well, the two guys that are competing, Taylor Anderson (Jr.) and Kirkland Michaux (So.), this time last year when we were getting ready to start practice on the first day, Taylor was the quarterback for our sophomore team and Kirkland was quarterback for our freshman A team. So they weren’t even a blip on the radar to be on the varsity, you know what I’m saying? It was heartbreaking last year to see Sam go through that, for him personally. But it’s kind of one of those things, again, we couldn’t control that, and our kids just kept answering that bell.
One of the things that we do here is at that position, you’re not going to have a Sam Ehlinger, just spit another one out, but we have a quarterback training system here that we feel like every year, we’re going to have a very efficient, well-coached quarterback that can win games for us. Taylor and Kirkland both improved tremendously on their toughness. The one thing I had to do with them is create as much speed of the game as I could for them during spring football practice. So to do that, you got to take the old red jersey off of them. So they were live all spring long. They made plays. They got knocked around, and I’m excited about the battle over the next two or three weeks.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: With Braden Cassidy and David Neill back to anchor a defensive line that’s considered one of the best in Central Texas, do you think your team can improve on that side of the ball?
COACH DODGE: Oh, absolutely. We’re really excited about the possibilities of our defense this year because those two are extremely good football players. They played really well as a junior in Cassidy’s case and a sophomore, Neill. One of them was first-team All-District (Cassidy, unanimous selection), the second one was the (Defensive) newcomer of the year (Neill, also unanimous selection) in our league, and I expect both of them to be considerably better than last year, and when that happens that’s going to make us a lot better. David Dickerson returns as a linebacker.
We’ve got two guys coming up that were kind of JV, kind of varsity players, Reed Dickerson and Jack Ehlinger at outside linebacker that we’re really excited about. In the secondary, we’ve got a lot of experience. We’re got four returning starters in the secondary. Both corners: Thomas Rousseau and Keaton Jones, and then our bandit, which is Connor Kelly, and then our free safety. So it’s exciting. It’s the complete opposite of what it was last year. We came off that 2015 season where we went to the state championship and our secondary last year was just extremely inexperienced. So we’re excited about that side of the ball.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: Lake Travis ran their winning streak against Westlake to 10 games last year. What’s it going to take to put an end to that streak?
COACH DODGE: Last year, we played them twice in one year so while we’ve (Dodge and his coaching staff) been here that was the third and fourth time we’ve played them. Obviously, state championship team and rightfully so. I’ve been in this a long time. That was one of the very best teams that I’ve seen in about the last 30 years in the state of Texas. They were groomed the right way to win a championship because they had been really young at one time.
But what has to happen to get in the hunt with them, we have to get into the game and have early success. You can call it what it is. When you’ve been beat 10 times by your arch rival in a row, there’s a little bit of a confidence factor. It’s interesting. Our kids can go up and we play Allen and break their 57-game win streak. We’ve beaten Katy. We can beat Judson. We can beat Southlake Carroll. But sometimes, right here in your own community, sometimes people start talking about stuff and stuff gets in your head. So it’s kind of the job of our coaches that we got to get that stuff out of their head and just play real well early and gain some confidence as the game progresses. But our goal is always to win a district championship and to win one we got to go through Lake Travis.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: How do you feel about the job your youth, middle school and sub-varsity coaches do at getting your players ready for the varsity level?
COACH DODGE: I think youth football here in Westlake is outstanding as I’ve seen it. One of the things as a father back when my son Riley was coming up, I think he played in about three different youth football programs as we moved around in my young coaching career. A lot of the time you can tell pretty quickly if the youth football program is about the dad’s egos or if it’s just about developing players and making sure that kids, when they’re in 3rd, 4th, 5th grade, start to have a love for the game early, and that’s the thing that I think our youth football, our Pop Warner, here in Westlake does. You have to grab kids and make sure that they teach them the right way and they have fun and they start to have a passion.
Our middle school coaches work very closely with us. We’re running (the) same offense, same defense, same terminology. We got an awesome situation here at Westlake. We’re one of only 17 school districts in the state of Texas that it’s a single-school district and the school is 6A. That’s kind of unbelievable even in the big state of Texas that there’s only 17 of those left, but we have two feeders going into one high school so I’m really pleased at where our kids come in. Our summer conditioning program is absolutely outstanding. It’s as good as there is anywhere in the state. Our rising freshmen, right now, yesterday they came in to meet the coaches with their parents and there’s 86 of them a week before we start camp. We think we’ll end up having 100 freshmen out.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: Since coming to Westlake, you’ve made a point of opening the season with big-name opponents. In 2014 and 2015, it was Southlake Carroll. Last year and this year, it’s eight-time state champion Katy. Why do you choose to go out and schedule these tough opponents for week one?
COACH DODGE: Usually, in one of those two years, you’re obviously going to be traveling a ways, like we did when my first game being the head football coach here, you talk about surreal, we stayed in a hotel the night before our first game (at Southlake Carroll), and that was not normal. But our kids played their hearts out. We got beat 17-14, and then we beat them here. But the one thing that I want our players to know (is) that I believe in them and I trust them and I think that’s a way that your entire offseason, your entire summer camp, your entire summer conditioning program, there’s an extra edge to it.
If you schedule someone who is a perennial 5-5 team for the first game, I don’t think that your kids are on edge enough as they need to be in their work ethic during the summer and spring. When you schedule someone like Katy it gets their attention because our kids our proud. They’re proud of our football program and they know if you half-step you’ll get embarrassed. So I think the work ethic, that’s one of the things that when we play someone really tough early, there’s a tremendous, tremendous look in their eye during the summer time. Because they know (who) we’re fixing to play. Last year, we played the defending state champion. I said, you know, ‘if you don’t think I believe in you, then you’re crazy. Why would I call Gary Joseph up and schedule a game against Katy, the defending state champion, if I didn’t believe what we can get done?’ So I think it’s a confidence boost for them too.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: Over the years, we’ve been seeing more and more run-pass options (plays where the OL blocks like it’s a run play, but WRs run routes, and the QB has the option of handing it off or throwing it) at every level of football. How has the advent of the run-pass option changed the game, and how often to do you run RPOs?
COACH DODGE: We are very much into RPOs. This will be the third year that we’ve been very, very active in RPOs. Really, what it is, is this: It starts out that the read-option, zone-read, stuff like that, people go, ‘OK, it’s going to be handed to the running back or the quarterback is going to run depending on what the defensive man does.’ So we went through those days. Well now, when you start to get into the RPOs, now you go, ‘OK, I don’t really have a quarterback who when they do run the heel line by the defensive end, I don’t really have a quarterback that’s going to hurt anybody, so I’m going to take the option away from him running it, and it’s going to be him throwing to a little slot receiver,’ and it’s really the same thing.
So people are really getting into that stuff because you’re still really running at least double-option football, whether you’re going to give it or you’re going to throw it. It obviously creates problems for the defense because the defense is getting nothing but low-hat run-reads, and it’s really hard for them to stay out of the box. It’s very popular. I see it continuing. It’s interesting the more and more things people are doing with it. Defensive coaches are going to really, really continue to, and coaches in general, people are getting away with getting offensive lineman downfield, and it really is going against really what the rules are. I can say that on ours, we get rid of the ball so quick, on our RPOs, if we do throw it, our offensive lineman are not downfield. They may be blocking run but they don’t get more than half-a-yard to a yard downfield before the ball is out, but it is a nice concept that’s in vogue right now.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: There’s been some news made in the offseason about referee shortages around the state. What would you say to someone thinking about getting into officiating, and how do you feel about the job the Texas Association of Sports Officials does at providing y’all with top-notch officials for Friday nights?
COACH DODGE: The first thing is, I think everybody needs to take the approach, whether it’s a Thursday night JV game or a Friday night game between Katy and Westlake, it’s going to be a very hyped-up, 12,000 people, then let’s all understand, the guys that are referees, and the guys that are coaching, we’re all working together. And that’s what I always tell referees. When we talk to them, I say ‘we look forward to working WITH you tonight,’ because we’re working together. We’re all apart of the greatness of Texas High School Football because really when it gets down to it, we are all here for these young men and their experience.
We all love the game or we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. A guy who wants to officiate, I would believe that he has a love and a passion for the game of football. Coaches, us as coaches, need to respect that. We need to respect the fact that they’re another guy who has a passion for the great game, and I think sometimes when you get to a game, there’s like adversity between officials and coaches already because they just think that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and it really doesn’t need to be that way. Everybody’s got their job in the game. There’s going to be officials that we have this year that are going to make great calls. I’m going to tell them, ‘man, you had great position on that one. Great call,’ and it may be against us or them. And there’s some times that they’re going to make a mistake, but you know what, there’s time in the game that I’m going to make a great call and it’s going to be a difference-maker and there’s going to be some where I make a really bone-head call. I just can’t stand watching games and seeing, you’ll see a guy, a side judge, and you got eight coaches on a team that are all just ripping him, yelling at him. He may (think) ‘why in the hell would I want to do this anymore?’ We talk a lot about our staff about staying away from that kind of behavior.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: It’s no secret that high school football takes on a bigger meaning in the great state of Texas. What does it mean to you to be a high school football coach in Texas, a place where the ‘Friday Night Lights’ seem to shine a little brighter?
COACH DODGE: Myself, probably like a lot of coaches that coach in the state, knew that we wanted to do this when we were probably 15-16 years old because we were apart of the brotherhood as a player. I tell our players all the time that I just thank the good lord that I live in the state of Texas and I thank the good lord that I get to be apart of the greatness of Texas High School Football. I remind our players. Our players work extremely hard and there’s a whole lot of programs that kids work extremely hard and they’re passionate and they’re up early. I always remind them, ‘guys, sometimes you got to remember, what’s this all about?’ What you do, and
I think it’s a pretty cool deal, when you play high school football in the state of Texas, what you choose to do as a high school athlete, is the most important thing to the people of our state. It’s more popular than professional football. It’s more popular than college football. It is Texas High School Football, and people are just like, an example, you know, it’s just like the people in Indiana, it’s Indiana basketball, or Kentucky basketball. Texas High School Football people are very passionate about it. So when you’re a kid and you’re working real hard at something that people love what you do and people are very interested in the game that you play.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: Which college and pro teams do you root for on Saturdays and Sundays?
COACH DODGE: On pro teams, it’s interesting, high school football coaches probably get the chance to watch more college football than they do pro football, at least that’s our case. We go to work at 1 o’clock on Sunday and we work until about 10 o’ clock at night, and so I usually don’t watch a whole lot of pro football. If I do, I’m going to watch the Dallas Cowboys. That’s my favorite team. Second, on college football, being here in Austin, I try to catch at least three of the Horn’s home games, and now that Sam is playing for them it’ll probably be even more. We really enjoy (that) Texas high school coaches are taken care of my college coaches and we get tickets with our high school coaches association card. We go to Texas games and of course, in the afternoons, on Saturday afternoons, I love watching college football. As far as the teams, it doesn’t really matter. I like watching good football. But the Texas Longhorns are my team.
TEXASHSFOOTBALL.COM: How has the city of Austin changed since you were quarterbacking the Texas Longhorns in the 1980s?
COACH DODGE: Unbelievable. When I came to Austin, TX, in the summer of 1981 I can remember driving on Highway 71 coming form Bastrop into Austin, and that was only the second time I came to Austin. I came to Austin on my recruiting visit and now I came I was reporting for college, and I drive my car and the city limits I can remember it said something like 320,000 people, Austin, TX, and I don’t know what it is now, but now Austin legitimately has suburbs. That’s the thing that’s crazy to me. When I got to Austin, Lake Travis Independent School District didn’t even exist. You had Leander.
There was one high school in Leander and that was Leander High School, and it was probably a 2A school. You had two high schools in Round Rock. You had Round Rock High. Westwood hadn’t even been opened yet. You had Pflugerville High School, that was about a 2A school. So in Austin, you had little country towns around Austin. Now those country towns, Cedar Park, Pflugerville, Round Rock, Lakeway are suburbs. That’s the crazy thing, and then the other thing is just the downtown area. Really, when I can remember being in college, the downtown area wasn’t just a really cool place to go. You could go to sixth street, but other than that there wasn’t really anything happening down there. Now it’s like, so many people live down there, so that’s kind of a change. But obviously, and I’m just going to state the obvious here, I guess no one ever saw what’s happening because they dang sure weren’t ready for it on the roads.
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