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By NATHANIEL BRYAN email@example.com
ELIZABETHTOWN — For Cody Withers, a wake-up call didn’t come at 6 a.m. on a school day.
Instead, for the Elizabethtown High School senior running back, it came the night of Oct. 3.
With his homestanding Panthers struggling to hold off the smaller Bardstown Tigers, Withers went on a first-half tirade in front of his coaches and teammates.
The result was banishment to the sideline the rest of the game, which gave him a pretty good seat to watch younger, less-established players like fullback Cameron Cochran and wide receiver Clayton Patton spur the Panthers to victory.
“As I watched, I immediately felt bad for doing it,” Withers said Thursday afternoon during practice as the Panthers (8-2) prepared to take on the visiting Frankfort Western Hills Wolverines (6-4) in the first round of the Class 3-A state playoffs.
Withers was suspended the following game, a 52-7 win over Louisville Moore, but he came with a vengeance against LaRue County. He torched his area rival for 106 rushing yards, 18 receiving yards and three touchdowns on his way to earning Area Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Two weeks later, Withers caught five passes and ran for 84 yards and a touchdown in the Panthers’ 49-48 win over Washington County in their season finale.
“He was running like the old Cody Withers, and you could tell that in both games he came back. He was hunting for the end zone,” said Elizabethtown senior quarterback Micheal Thomas, one of the most prolific passers in the state. “It’s bad to say that you had to sit someone to get them motivated, but since he’s come back, he’s played a lot better.”
As impressive as the 5-foot-8, 215-pound Withers has been recently, his best performance might have been in a loss. When the Panthers fell on the road, 23-14 to defending 3-A state champion Louisville Central, it was Withers who kept his team from getting blown out by the athletic Yellow Jackets.
With Elizabethtown down 17-0 and its passing game struggling, the Panthers turned to the running game and Withers, who helped lead two scoring drives.
“We scored twice pretty quick. Cody kept us in the game,” Thomas said.
Thomas has been superb this season, but he admits Withers is a big reason why, even though the Panthers are averaging far less rushing yards per game (91.9) than they are through the air (314.7).
“The running game for us is great. Having Cody back there next to me means the defense will have to be on its toes, wondering whether we’re going to throw or hand the ball off,” Thomas said.
Second-year Elizabethtown coach Brad Todd, whose son, Chris, is a Division-I quarterback in the Southeastern Conference, agreed that a running game is pivotal to keep teams from blitzing all night or sitting back in a prevent defense.
“Cody really gives us a legit running game,” Todd said. “When you throw the ball as much as we do, you have to be able to have a running game and Cody does a good job of running between the tackles as well as getting to the edge.”
Withers has been around the Elizabethtown program seemingly forever. After leading T.K. Stone, the Panthers’ middle-school feeder program to success, he starred as an eighth-grader on the freshman team. He’s been carrying the ball on the varsity level since his freshman season.
Thomas said Withers has evolved as he’s gotten older.
“He’s had a lot of experience and he’s learned from it,” Thomas said.
Todd used to say Withers was a hard-nosed runner. Although Withers liked the compliment, he said he doesn’t need to run hard-nosed all the time.
“I can’t just try to run over people, because I usually fall down as soon as I do it, so I need to try to make a move,” he said. “If there’s a little crease, I’m going for it. You have to have somewhere to go. You don’t want to get stuffed in the backfield. You can’t be losing yards.”
Withers hasn’t lost many yards as he’s amassed 550 yards and eight touchdowns on 92 carries heading into tonight’s game. He’s a dual threat with 20 receptions for 144 yards and three touchdowns.
“Cody has a great set of hands on him and I don’t think people give him enough credit,” Todd said. “You could put him at wideout and he’d run great routes for you. He really has a great understanding of the passing game.”
Not bad for someone who earlier this season didn’t understand what he had to do to keep himself in the game.
“I lost my temper and I lost my composure and said some things to the coaches I really shouldn’t have said, especially in front of the team. I have a short temper and I think that game has helped me to control it,” Withers said. “It hurt me to be on the bench, but I shouldn’t have said what I did. And I needed to be benched to show I was like everyone else. We’re all out here trying to win.”
With Withers back to his old, productive ways, Todd hopes the first win comes tonight.
“Cody’s very important,” Todd said. “Cody is very key to our success in the postseason.”
Nathaniel Bryan can be reached at 505-1758