Prep Football

Will Burds does it all for No. 1 Western Dubuque football

Senior adds receiving threat to defensive and special teams roles; Bobcats host No. 2 Xavier in state finals rematch

Western Dubuque's Will Burds (31) returns an onside kick 48-yards for a touchdown during the fourth quarter of their high school football state semifinal game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (The Gazette)
Western Dubuque's Will Burds (31) returns an onside kick 48-yards for a touchdown during the fourth quarter of their high school football state semifinal game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (The Gazette)

EPWORTH — Western Dubuque returned key components from last year’s state runner-up offense.

Versatile quarterback Calvin Harris, backfield tandem Ben Bryant and Jake Hosch and four of the top six receivers came back this season.

The question was who could step in and be the big-play threat, replacing graduated wide receiver Drake George’s 1,165 yards on 74 catches and 15 touchdowns.

The answer became senior Will Burds.

Burds stepped in at receiver, adding to his role on defense and as an all-state return specialist, and has become a big-play threat for the top-ranked Bobcats. He has blown away his offensive output from a year ago with 570 total yards and 10 TDs heading into Friday’s showdown of unbeatens against No. 2 Cedar Rapids Xavier in a rematch of the 2018 Class 3A state final.

“I’m just trying to go every play and see what we can get from it,” said Burds, who averages 19.5 yards per reception. “I don’t really consider myself a big playmaker. I’m just trying to be a solid receiver and be one to count on and be there for Cal to throw to.”

He was excited for more offensive reps this season after getting just five touches last year. He said he knew filling George’s shoes would be tough, but didn’t feel pressure to match his numbers.

“I guess I was a little nervous, coming off that big year Drake had catching all those passes,” Burds said. “I knew I wasn’t Drake George. I was just going to do my job and do my best.”

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Burds serves as an iron man, of sorts, barely coming off the field. In addition to leading the team in receiving, he is fourth on the team with 21 total tackles and has three takeaways. Burds also is the Bobcats’ top kickoff and punt returner.

“He’s so quiet and humble,” Western Dubuque head coach Justin Penner said. “Honestly, if I said we’re low on numbers and we need you to play offensive tackle for us, I believe he would. I think that is why kids respect him so much.

“He’s a really tough human. It’s a combination that he wants to help the team succeed and he’s just incredibly tough.”

Penner said few train as hard as the safety, who is a regular in the weight room and has had to have coaches cut short his long workouts. He’s even earned the nickname “Biceps Burds” for his lifting efforts.

“That’s just him,” Penner said. “He’s super quiet and a very hard worker.”

Penner considered different options with his skill players, including Burds rotating in at the slot position with wideouts Payton Quagliano and Bryce Ploessl possibly as outside receivers.

Burds stepped in without skipping a beat and emerged as a threat, going for 138 yards on eight catches and three TDs in a Week 2 victory over Williamsburg. He surpassed 100 receiving yards in three straight games.

“When Will touches the ball, he knows what to do with it,” Penner said. “He’s been pretty opportunistic.”

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Burds worked on his route running coming into his final campaign. He also worked on his timing. It paid dividends when he followed the Williamsburg game with 102 receiving yards and 25 rushing yards with two total scores against Decorah.

“That game was good,” Burds said. “Cal and I had our timing down good. I caught a few nice passes and that’s when I knew we could have something going.

“Calvin has always thrown a good ball to me, so that really helps, too. We’re definitely not brand new to each other. We’ve been around each other for a while. It just kind of clicked this year.”

Burds demonstrated his big-play potential last season, averaging more than 46 yards per kickoff return. He returned four of 10 for touchdowns, including two in a state semifinal victory over Sergeant Bluff-Luton.

Defense remains his favorite and how he broke through last season.

“I like running the gaps and hitting someone and getting tackles,” Burds said. “That is fun.”

His 61 total tackles was third on the team last season. He has a nose for the ball and a knack for being involved in a play. Burds tallied 13 tackles in the state championship game against Xavier and 21 1/2 total in two games at the UNI-Dome.

“He’s always at the football,” Penner said. “He’s sneaky good. There is nothing flashy about him. He gets the job done.

“He’s one of the best football players I’ve ever coached.”

Western Dubuque (6-0, 2-0) and Xavier (6-0, 2-0) have been similarly dominant. The Bobcats average almost 36 points and 374 yards per game, while allowing 6.5. Xavier comes in at 35 and more than 362 yards, surrendering 7.7 to foes.

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Xavier won both matchups last season and owns a 3-1 edge all-time. Penner said the Bobcats have been focused on each opponent leading up to this week. They have the same approach, but the 34-20 loss last November hasn’t set well.

“That state title game bothers us,” Penner said. “It leaves a sour taste in your mouth. Our guys are focused on this. When we’re at practice, it doesn’t feel different. It’s intense, but it’s intense every day.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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