Andrew Vargas is every football coach’s dream.
The Chiawana High School junior running back puts in his work — and then some more — in the weight room and in practice. He takes direction well from his coaches and respects his teammates. He’s good in the classroom, too, carrying a 3.75 grade-point average.
His biggest problem? Vargas has had some trouble holding on to the football. In fact, that might be putting it mildly.
Vargas has averaged more than a fumble a game this season, a big problem in the Riverhawks’ ball-control offense that depends heavily on its running back. Normally, that would be the kiss of death for any ball carrier, but Chiawana coach Steve Graff has another dilemma: Vargas leads the Mid-Columbia Conference in carries (223), rushing yardage (1,723) and touchdowns (18).
So you can see why Graff can’t take him off the field.
“You take the good with the bad,” Graff said. “Fumbles are going to happen. Interceptions are going to happen.”
Instead, Graff would much rather keep training Vargas up and teach him to take better care of the ball.
“The first thing we teach our running backs is hold on to the ball,” Graff said. “(Vargas) hasn’t done a very good job of that. He cannot carry the ball in his right hand. Every time he puts it in his right hand, he fumbles it. I don’t care which hand you put it in. Just don’t fumble it. When he gets into traffic, he’s got to do a better job of covering it up.”
The 5-foot-9, 205-pound Vargas, an impressive blend of speed and power, has improved his effectiveness throughout the year. He was the Riverhawks’ No. 1 back from Day One, averaging 168 yards on 27 carries through the first five games.
Buoyed by the ongoing development of a young offensive line, Vargas has stepped up his game a notch, averaging 287 yards on 28 carries over his past three games. His last nine touchdown runs have averaged 52 yards, the longest being an 86-yard carry in last Friday’s 42-35 win over Kennewick.
“It’s nice having big runs like that,” Vargas said. “I’m more of a power runner — I like breaking tackles — but breaking big runs feels good. I’m not super fast, but I’m fast enough. I was looking forward to a big year, especially after (backing up) Austin Urlacher last year.”
While Urlacher was busy setting the single-season 11-man state record with 2,877 rushing yards in 2014, Vargas showed some promise as his sophomore understudy, carrying 70 times for 415 yards and four touchdowns.
“We’re not asking for TDs. We’re asking for 4 yards and move the chains. Anything more than 4 yards is a bonus,” Graff said. “The offensive line has gotten better and better each week. Early in the season, there were a lot of 4-yard runs. Now they’re more like 12-yard runs.”
Four yards a carry isn’t enough for Vargas. He had a great role model in Urlacher, who averaged more than 8 yards a carry during the 2014 regular season.
“I liked the way (Urlacher) ran the ball,” Vargas said. “He ran hard all the time and always had a positive attitude. He showed great senior leadership. I knew I had to step up this year, too.”
As good as he is on the football field, Vargas might be even better on a baseball field, drawing interest from Washington State, Washington, Oregon and Gonzaga for his pitching prowess. He touched 90 mph on his fastball last spring, and he has a five-pitch repertoire that also includes a curve, change-up, slider and a split-finger fastball.
“That’s probably my favorite pitch,” said Vargas, whose hobbies include motoring around on his Honda CRF 450 dirtbike and tinkering around with his pride and joy, a 1969 Chevelle.
In case you’re wondering, there is a bright side to Vargas’ case of the dropsies. In some cases, it works in Chiawana’s favor.
“When he fumbles, we like to make fun of him. He’ll get pissed off, and you can tell,” said Riverhawks wide receiver Brayde Hirai, a teammate on the football field and on the baseball diamond. “That’s when he’ll break out with a 60-yard run, bowling kids over. In baseball, he’ll strike out almost the whole game and then end it with a home run just crazy far.
“He likes to redeem himself a lot.”