By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
Less than two years ago, Austin Otis was a frustrated wide receiver stuck on the sidelines for the Lake Stevens High football team.
Today, he’s in Moses Lake with some of the best 3A and 4A high-school football players in the state getting set to represent the Vikings as a running back in Friday’s annual East/West All-Star game.
The game kicks off at 7 p.m. at Lions Field.
Otis, who will play college football at Pacific Lutheran University, was moved from running back to wide receiver prior to the start of his junior season. Lake Stevens head coach Tom Tri said the move was intended to get Otis, who was a ways down on the running back depth chart, and his athletic ability on the field.
“We knew he was talented and he was fast and was a good football player,” Tri said. “Rather than having him be our second- or third-string running back at the time, we moved him to (receiver) to try to get him on the field a little bit more and utilize his talent.”
Otis admits now he didn’t want to change positions, but didn’t want to question the coaching staff’s decision.
“I’m not going to fight with the coach and be like, ‘I think I’d be better here,’” Otis said. “I’m just going to try to contribute any way I can to the team.”
Despite his optimistic outlook, wide receiver was a struggle. Otis played on special teams, but didn’t get on the field much on offense.
“He was just never comfortable playing the receiver position and working from the outside in,” Tri said. “It wasn’t that he was terrible. He was a good football player and he was a good (receiver), he was just that much better of a running back when we got him back there.”
Unfortunately, his return to running back came at the expense of one of Otis’ teammates and friends. Midway through the season the season, starting running back Brad Berry suffered a concussion and was unable to continue playing football. Berry’s injury created a need on the running back depth chart, so Tri moved Otis back to his natural position.
“He really understood running back and it allowed him to kind of let loose on some of his frustration that we he was having as a result of trying to move to a wide receiver position,” Tri said.
Otis, who shared time in the backfield with Tanner Krenz, showed some of his potential in a 49-6 victory over Mount Vernon in Week 5, rushing for two touchdowns.
Three weeks later, Otis was starting against Snohomish in the Vikings’ regular-season finale — his performance was historic.
Otis rushed for a school-record 287 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 57-21 win over the Panthers.
“That (offensive) line was awesome,” Otis said. “They’d make the biggest holes. I could drive a truck through them. It wasn’t necessarily me. It was just the blocking. I just had to find the holes.”
Otis began his senior season as the Vikings’ unquestioned starter at running back.
Lake Stevens opened its league schedule on the road against Monroe. Nearly a year earlier the Bearcats had scored a 9-7 road upset over the Vikings that ultimately decided the Wesco 4A North regular-season championship.
It was a tough loss for the Vikings to swallow.
“That was the worst game that we’ve ever played that I’ve ever been a part of,” Otis said. “(Monroe) is who we’ve been gunning for ever since my junior year.”
The Vikings’ focus was on display from the opening kickoff of a 49-13 thrashing of Monroe. Otis, now a team captain, led the way, rushing for 292 yards, breaking his own school record.
“It was a pretty cool deal for him in his third or fourth game moving back to his running back position to be able to rush for darn near 300 yards as a junior,” Tri said. “And then to go out and break your own school-record the following year at Monroe, which was a huge game for us, was something pretty special.”
Just as it did the year before, the Lake Stevens-Monroe outcome would ultimately decide the Wesco North. This time the Vikings came out on top.
By the end of the season, the Lake Stevens offense was firing on all cylinders, but it didn’t start that way. Vikings’ quarterback Jacob Eason, now one of the top QBs in the state and one of the top Class of 2016 recruits at his position in the entire country, struggled early in the 2013 season and Otis carried the team.
“(Otis) was a huge reason why we were able to make that transition when Jake Nelson graduated to a younger quarterback,” Tri said. “Teams are really forced to leave six in the box to stop our run game and when you leave six in the box, you are leaving one less guy to defend the pass and that made it easier on our quarterback’s ability to be successful because it changed the whole way that defenses were playing us.
“Because of Austin’s ability to run the ball between the tackles, and or to the edge for that matter, a lot of teams respected our run game and left six in the box and that really did help open up our passing game.”
Pretty soon Eason was carving up secondaries and defenses were forced to adjust.
“I think until (Eason) got his footing we kind of relied more on the running game,” Otis said. “Once he started getting his footing, we already had the running game set and that’s kind of like a dual-threat to other teams.
“They would expect pass and they’d get a run. They would expect run and they’d get a pass. They really didn’t know what they were getting thrown at them.”
Otis took advantage of the Vikings’ balanced offense, finishing the season with nearly 1,400 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns.
Playing behind a star like Eason, it was difficult for Otis to know if his efforts on the field were being recognized by people outside of his own teammates and the Vikings’ coaching staff. So being named as the only Lake Stevens representative in this year’s East-West All-Star game was very rewarding.
“It kind of reassures me that some people did notice what I was doing.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.