Changes lead Welsh back to familiar place
After spending last year’s run to the Class 2A state championship as Welsh’s starting receivers, Greyhounds Da’Ren Zeno and Austyn Benoit have seen their roles change this year.
Despite the changes, the duo have a chance to repeat as state champs when Welsh faces Amite at noon Friday in the Superdome in New Orleans.
Benoit made the move from safety to starting QB, while Zeno saw his targets reduced as the Greyhounds offense shifted to a more run-oriented attack.
Zeno, a first-team all-state selection a year ago, has returned to posting eye-popping numbers the past two weeks with 17 catches for 235 yards and three touchdowns in wins over DeQuincy and Many. Those numbers are in line with his numbers from last season, when he made 94 catches for 1,450 yards and 19 TDs.
“Zeno has been a great kid, with the offense and personnel changes he has had to play a different role,” Welsh head coach John Richardson said after the quarterfinal-round win over DeQuincy, when Zeno had 10 catches for 145 yards and three TDs. “He has never changed. He is a terrific player and makes plays for us whenever the ball goes to him.”
Zeno said last week’s game, when the Greyhounds rallied from a 21-7 deficit to beat No. 1 Many 28-21, provided the best moment of the season.
“Scoring that touchdown before halftime last week has been the highlight for me,” he said. “We needed that one.”
Zeno’s score on a 14-yard pass from Benoit pulled the Greyhounds to within 28-14 and changed the momentum.
“We were so fired up going into halftime,” Benoit said. “I knew then that we were going to win that game.”
Zeno scored twice in last year’s title game, including the first touchdown of the game on a double move that put the ‘Hounds up 10-0.
“It was a hitch-and-go, the favorite play of my career,” he said. “I knew the ball was coming to me and that I had to make the defender come down on the hitch so the go would be open.”
Zeno said Benoit’s mobility allow the Greyhounds to make big plays even when things break down.
“He can move and he won’t look at just one receiver,” Zeno said. “He will look downfield and throw it to whoever’s open.”
Zeno said he is relishing the chance to have another game on the biggest stage in the state.
“It’s another big game; I have to do everything I can to help my team,” he said.
Benoit has found several ways to help the ‘Hounds in his career, serving as a receiver, defensive back and kick returner for most of his career. In the title game last season, he moved to running back and ran for 88 yards on 13 carries in addition to catching two passes for 12 yards.
He said the move to QB has been fun and aided by his time at receiver.
“I like it,” he said. “I feel like the leader and I enjoy that part of it.
“(Having played receiver) helps me understand how the offense is supposed to work, how the routes develop. I did enjoy playing defense full-time. It is fun to be able to lay the licks instead of getting hit.”
This season Benoit has thrown for 1,492 yards and 19 TDs while running for 844 yards and 15 TDs.
He said he having a target as reliable as Zeno has been reassuring.
“Every time you throw it to him, he’s going to catch it,” Benoit said. “He’s incredible. It’s great to have a guy like that.”
Benoit said the loss of a standout senior class from last season caused outsiders to doubt this year’s team.
“Nobody thought we would get this far,” he said. “From Week 1, I thought we would be back. All of us grew up playing together and I knew that we had the heart and would do whatever it took to get back.”
Welsh’s Da’Ren Zeno makes an over the shoulder catch in the first half of the game against Many on Nov. 30, 2018.
Welsh quarterback Austyn Benoit looks down field for a target in the second quarter.