Photo by Jeff Yoder
Your Prep Sports
WEST BRANCH – Not long ago the offense under long-time West Branch head coach Butch Pedersen consisted mostly of three yards and a cloud of dust.
That run-oriented, power offense worked mighty well for Pedersen who is four wins shy of 300 for his career and now coaches on a field at the historic Little Rose Bowl that now bears his name.
Most coaches with close to 40 seasons as a head coach aren’t interested in an offensive overhaul but at West Branch the playbook is expanding and the player behind center is a big reason why.
Senior quarterback Beau Cornwell returns as one of the top passers in the state after setting school records for completions, passing yards and touchdowns last season.
“We’ve had success running the ball, if I have a big 300-pound line I’m probably not going to throw it a lot but we don’t have that,” Pedersen said. “We want to feature the kids’ talent that we have and we think we have a very talented quarterback.”
The talent of the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Cornwell was enough for the traditionally run-heavy, power-football-loving Pedersen to join the teams turning to a spread-out offense.
Only 10 quarterbacks in the state attempted more passes than the 263 that Cornwell threw a year ago, the most ever by a West Branch quarterback.
“Butch, I know he loves to run the ball but I didn’t have to try to convince him to throw it more,” Cornwell said. “He is a great coach, he understands the game so well and I think he’s gotten used to it. And he’s a big Iowa fan and Iowa is starting to spread it out more so he sees the game is evolving that way.”
The offense has certainly evolved quickly at West Branch.
Two seasons ago all-state running back Luke Lenoch averaged better than 29 carries a game, second most in the state.
In the 10 seasons before last year West Branch averaged 13.4 pass attempts per game and had as more seasons with less than 100 attempts (2) than it did with more than 200 (1).
Last season West Branch threw it 26.5 times 12th most in the state.
“I think one of the things that we’ve done pretty well over the years is put in things that fit the personnel that we have,” Pedersen said. “We want to evolve as an offense.”
That is where Cornwell comes in.
One of the top scoring point guards in the state during basketball season Cornwell carried those qualities as an offensive facilitator over to the football field last fall.
Cornwell threw for a school record 2,125 yards and tied the West Branch mark for touchdown passes with 20 while leading the Bears to an undefeated regular reason.
He completed better than 64 of his pass attempts as West Branch averaged just under 35 points per game.
Pedersen expects more from his senior quarterback this season.
“He’s grown immensely from a year ago,” Pedersen said of Cornwell. “With his growth we are able to do more things on offense and that’s why we are pretty diverse this year on offense.”
Cornwell won the starting quarterback job in fall camp in 2016 but completed just two passes as a sophomore before a broken collar bone in week two ended his season.
That made last year Cornwell’s first full season as a varsity starter.
That experience, combined with his throwing and rushing ability, he ran for 264 yards and eight touchdowns last season, make Cornwell one of the most productive returning quarterbacks in Iowa.
“Personally, I feel like last season really benefitted me,” Cornwell said. “I know the offense now fully, I know what other teams are brining. I’ve settled myself down before games. I’ve learned a lot about myself.”
Cornwell hit the camp circuit this summer and has seen interest from college program spike.
In addition to jumping onto the radar of college programs Cornwell used the summer camp journeys to improve as a quarterback.
“I tried to take one thing from each camp that they told me to improve on and really work on that,” Cornwell said. “I felt like my game improved drastically over those two months.”
One area Cornwell knows he needs to improve on is protecting the football.
Of his seven interceptions last seasons six came over the final five games, including two in a 32-13 loss to Pleasantville in the opening round of the Class 1A playoffs.
Cornwell had eight touchdowns passes with six interceptions in the final five games last season.
“I want to take care of the ball more, I had a lot of interceptions at the end of the year last year because I was trying to force it down the field instead of running for five yards and getting down,” Cornwell said. “I need to stay level and know what to do in situations.”
Cornwell wants to up his completion percentage and touchdown numbers in addition to dropping his turnovers.
A more efficient Cornwell could make defending West Branch an even more unenviable task.
Only one quarterback in the state returns this fall after throwing for more yards per game than the 215 Cornwell averaged a year ago and his 64.3 completion percentage is third among players with at least 12 attempts.
The top two targets for Cornwell last season graduated but the senior believes the West Branch offense will be even more explosive this season.
“We have a lot of weapons, we can run with a lot of people, we can throw the ball to a lot of people so we are pretty dynamic,” Cornwell said. “I feel like we can be more explosive than last year we just have to stay patient.”
Last season West Branch had three players with at least 40 receptions while the Bear with the next most had 17.
Cornwell believes depth at the skill positions could lead those numbers to be more balanced and could even enable some up-tempo, no-huddle looks at times.
Up-tempo at West Branch?
Times are changing.
“Depth is a huge factor for us this year especially when we like to go fast,” Cornwell said. “We like to slow it down sometimes and go fast sometimes so it’s about adapting to what we see in games.”