McALLEN — Under head coach Bill Littleton, McAllen Memorial has always been known for milking the clock and controlling the time of possession with a ground-and-pound rushing attack and timely defensive play to keep opposing offenses off the field.
But when the Mustangs went on the road and knocked off the District 29-6A champion Laredo United South Panthers, they emerged victorious because of a revamped, electric passing game centered around the senior wide receiver-quarterback battery of Zyan Gregory and Joseph Lara.
In what was the team’s most well-rounded offensive performance of the season, Gregory and Lara outgained the Mustangs’ talented backfield in yardage for the first time all season and were able to show off their play-making abilities.
“Honestly, the corner really anticipated the run a lot of the time, so we used that to our advantage. He would jump for the run and we would throw the ball and it worked,” Gregory said of his team’s bi-district game against Laredo United South. “I liked that we got to show that we can run and throw because we can always throw and always run, but it’s good to show that we can do both.”
The potent rushing attack of Memorial’s offense has set up the pass for most of the season with many teams choosing to crowd the box and sell out trying to stop the team’s stable of talented backs. It’s a look that Gregory and Lara have become all too accustomed to seeing and exploiting between the lines.
“They were coming down pretty hard, so we just opened it up and went over the top with it and it was successful,” Lara said. “I felt comfortable with it. It helps us a lot just spreading it out. If they want to come downhill and put everyone in the box, we can just go over the top on it. Pick your poison.”
It’s a lethal choice for opposing defenses to have to make. The Gregory-Lara combo has continued to grow throughout the season and the two have consistently upped their production in the passing game from week to week.
The duo has built a special connection over time through a lot of reps and practice dating back to before the season even began.
“It’s been built up by 7-on-7 and all the workouts during the summer. We built on the routes when we ran during the summer.” Lara said. “We’ve been working on that a lot during practice, during the summer and during 7-on-7, especially just passing. I know when he’ll break and how fast he’s running his route, so we’re on time most of the time.”
“We work on timing a lot during practice. We’ll run a lot of routes over and over. In the summer we’d work out and make sure that we had that timing down so that the game is just easy,” Gregory said. “I think we’re getting a lot more comfortable with passing. I think they trust us now and see that we can pass, so we’re throwing it more.”
Gregory and Lara just completed their best game together all season, connecting four times against Laredo United South for a jaw-dropping 136 yards and two long touchdowns. Lara also threw for a season-high 175 yards against the Panthers.
But Gregory, in particular, seems to be ramping up his play to another level down the stretch run and has emerged as the Valley’s top deep threat. He’s accounted for seven of his eight touchdown grabs on the season in his last four games and has tallied his three best games in terms of yardage during that stretch also.
“Last time I looked, he was plus-23 or something like that and he probably added to that a little bit this week because he had a couple of big catches,” Littleton said. “He didn’t have a whole lot of catches, but what I keep telling him is, ‘When we throw the ball to you, it’s going to be a big play and big yardage. Keep making the plays you’ve been making for us.’ He’s an outstanding receiver.”
Gregory possesses elite speed and because of the way most opposing defenses line up against the Mustangs, he’s often able to take advantage of one-on-one man coverage. On the season, he’s averaging a staggering 24.6 yards per reception.
“For people who haven’t seen me play, I’m fast and I’m good at coming down with a lot of high passes,” he said. “I use my range to my advantage.”
What truly sets him apart from others, though, is his innate ability to snag catches that no other player could make and come away with 50/50 balls regularly.
“He’s got a little wiggle to him. The best thing about him is that he runs good routes and has good hands. I’ve seen him make some catches in practice that looked almost impossible to me and I’ve seen a few of them in games,” Littleton said. “He caught one out of bounds against South the other day that was just unbelievable. Obviously it didn’t count because he was out of bounds, but for him to just come up with the football was just amazing.”
Together, Gregory and Lara have connected on more deep, home run passes than any other receiver-quarterback duo in the area, something that Gregory credits to the bond they’ve forged and the continued development of Lara in his first year behind center.
“I feel like most of our passes are pretty long passes,” Gregory said. “I think it has a lot to do with Joseph. He can put it pretty much anywhere which helps a lot. A lot of teams that pass, they do a lot of quick passes. I mean we can too, but I’ve noticed that the ones that we thrive on are deep passes.”
In order for the Mustangs offense to continue to thrive, Lara and Gregory both know that they’ll have to continue to air it out effectively and connect on deep balls to keep defenses guessing.
“I feel like we’re really grooving because it spreads everything out a lot,” Lara said. “People don’t know what we’re going to run, whether we’re going to run the ball or pass the ball. It’s like 50/50 and it helps us a lot.”
“We’re going to have to spread it out,” Gregory said. “We’re not going to be able to just run the ball or just throw the ball. We’re going to have to set up runs to set up throws.”