'Best front five in the nation' a backbone to Jada Byers' record-setting season at Virginia Union - Mike Morita

By Wayne Epps
Richmond Times-Dispatch

It’s something Jada Byers proclaims unabashedly, with complete conviction.

“I have the best front five in the nation,” Byers said last week.

Byers’ praise of his offensive line at Virginia Union has been a consistent refrain this season, a backdrop to his authoring of the most prolific season on the ground in Panthers program history.

The sophomore running back has long had ambitious aims for this season. He stated in June a goal of running for 2,000 yards this season. And he told VUU’s offensive linemen that the job was theirs, to create the holes and creases he would need.

Five months later, it’s proven a job well done.

With 109 rushing yards against Chowan this past Saturday, Byers upped his total on the year to 1,669 yards and passed Andre Braxton’s 2000 mark of 1,660 yards to set a new VUU single-season record.

It was a big moment not only for Byers, but also for his integral supporting cast — an offensive line that redshirt freshman left guard Justin Meade (J.R. Tucker) described as both the smartest and the most physical O-line group he’s been a part of since he’s been at VUU.

“I love Jada, and the fact that he acknowledges us … And seeing him get these accolades is very rewarding,” said graduate left tackle Darian Bryant, a transfer who was at Temple and Towson before joining the Panthers this past spring.

The offensive line has helped shape Byers’ road to his record-setting mark — one that’s included profound numbers at nearly every stop. The 5-foot-7, 180-pounder has run for at least 200 yards three different times, including a CIAA-record 319 yards in an upset win at then No. 2-ranked Valdosta State in September.

Byers’ 185.4 yards per game lead all players, across all levels of NCAA football. The production has been essential for the 16th-ranked Panthers (8-1, 6-1 CIAA), who started the season 8-0 for the first time since 1990 before falling 26-21 to Chowan (6-3, 6-1) this past Saturday.

The root of the stout offensive line backing Byers lies in VUU’s recruiting efforts. Both the offensive and defensive line are heavily emphasized by Panthers coach Alvin Parker. And for the offensive line in particular, VUU’s staff seeks players with a run-first personality.

“There’s all kinds of carnage thrown across the field,” said Panthers offensive line coach/associate head coach/offensive coordinator Mike Morita, describing the O-line’s aggressiveness. “So it makes it easy for Jada to find holes and just run through it when the line is moving the right way.”

Morita, who is in his sixth year at VUU, was an offensive lineman and then a running back in a collegiate playing career that finished at Idaho State.

His philosophy in leading the Panthers’ line stands on repetition and simplicity. There are not a ton of different plays, and Morita doesn’t desire to throw a lot of adjustments at his players, either.

“We want them to be able to play fast and be aggressive — confident in what they do,” Morita said.

Within that system, that fosters freedom, is what Byers believes makes the line so strong: the unit’s communication. He said he’s never seen a front five communicate in a game like VUU’s does.

For example, Saint Augustine’s threw a new defensive look at VUU in an early October game, compared to what the Panthers had seen on film, Morita said. Thus, the first series didn’t go well — quarterback Jahkari Grant was intercepted on VUU’s first offensive play.

From there, though, players discussed it on the sideline and figured out how they were going to handle it. The Panthers ultimately went on to a 69-0 win.

As proud as Morita and the line was about Byers’ milestone this past Saturday, Morita, frankly, said it “came on the wrong day” because of the loss. Both Byers and the line just want to win, he added.

A win by VUU could’ve clinched the Northern Division and a spot in the CIAA title game. The Panthers’ road to the title game is now tougher — they need a win at Virginia State (6-3, 5-2) on Saturday paired with a Chowan loss at Elizabeth City State (2-7, 2-5).

If VUU takes care of its piece in that equation, another big day from Byers seems a likely ingredient, with a line that he has sung the praises of all year leading the way.

“Our mindset hasn’t changed,” Bryant said, “we just have to go and do our job.”

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