Early, seeking first postseason berth since 2008, targets fast start in district

EARLY — Seeking their first postseason berth since 2008, the Early Longhorns are looking to start the District 3-3A Division I schedule on a positive note as they visit the winless Brady Bulldogs at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

After a 2-1 start, the Longhorns have dropped back-to-back contests to Tolar (33-7) and Paradise (28-0) as Early has not produced a point over the last six quarters. Meanwhile, Brady, under first-year head coach and former Brownwood assistant Shay Easterwood, has suffered losses out of the gate to Pecos (57-27), Lago Vista (28-12), Llano (45-0), Coleman (28-19) and Comfort (20-12).

Despite Brady’s record, the Longhorns aren’t underestimating the Bulldogs.

“We’re excited about the opportunity and the challenge that Brady presents us,” said Early third-year head coach Blake Sandford. “We want to start off district 1-0 whether we’re playing the Brady Bulldogs or the Dallas Cowboys. That’s how we approach it. This is the first game of the second season. We got some experience during pre-district for some younger kids who have never played on varsity, so all our cards are on the table and we’re ready to go.”

Regarding his thoughts on the impending District 3-3A Division I race after five regular-season games, Sandford said, “I think everybody’s improved, and we certainly have. Everything is up for grabs. We’re all 0-0 at the beginning and we have our goals that we’re out to achieve.”

Early was in the same position as Brady last year, seeking its first win as district arrived, but the Longhorns have made great strides through the first half of the 2017 campaign.

“This team is hungry to succeed,” Sandford said when asked what he learned about his team during the pre-district slate. “They work hard, they’re having some success and they want more.”

The Longhorns’ bye week followed a disappointing 28-0 homecoming loss to Paradise, as Early struggled more on both sides of the ball than it had during any other game this season.

“There were a variety of factors in the outcome, and certainly the other team was one of the biggest factors,” Sandford said. “They were pretty good. They were a lot bigger, they came off the ball pretty well and pretty hard. We just weren’t able to execute offensively and defensively. It just didn’t go our way.”

For the season, the Longhorns are averaging 21 points and 303 yards — 193 passing and 110 rushing — per contest with eight turnovers.

Quarterback Ryan Trompler leads Early in both passing yards (92 of 146 for 967 yards, 4 TDs, 4 INTs) and rushing yards (268 yards, 7 TDs). Top receiving threats include Ty Schafer (29-229, TD), Rowdy Elkins (22-324, 2 TDs), Jesson Tarrant (19-142), Devyn Burns (11-163, TD) and Jim Fowler (5-34). Other weapons on the ground include Tarrant (132 yards, 2 TDs), Jose Pesina (67 yards, 2 TDs) and Hayden Barker (61 yards).

Defensively, Early is yielding 23 points and 336 yards — 223 on the ground and 113 through the air — per game, with four takeaways.

Standouts for the Longhorn defense include Miguel Elizondo (83 tackles, 4 for loss), Brandon Lombrano (39 tackles, 1 for loss), Teddy Ozuna (35 tackles, 2 for loss), Burns (34 tackles), Chase Keilers (33 tackles, 2 for loss, 2 FRs), Mason Flippin (29 tackles), Jadyn Lehde (27 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 FR), Barker (25 tackles, 3 for loss, 1 sack), John Griffin (22 tackles, 3 for loss, 1 FR), Ethan Rhodes (20 tackles).

Brady counters with an offense that produces just 14 points and 225 yards — 122 rushing and 103 passing — per game.

Tyler Vaughn has completed 19 of 35 passes for 176 yards while Chad Cross has connected on 27 of 64 attempts for 163 yards. The duo has combined for three passing touchdowns and five interceptions.

On the ground, Ryan Decker (336 yards, 3 TDs) leads the charge followed by Cross (103 yards 2 TDs) and Vaughn (84 yards, 3 TDs).

Cole Bryant (17-245, TD) is the leading receiver with no other Bulldog grabbing more than five receptions.

Defensively for Brady, which is surrendering 36 points on average, leading tacklers include Vaughn (40 tackles), Bryant (39 tackles), Ross Jacoby (37 tackles, 4 for loss), Joe Torres (29 tackles, 5 for loss), and Ryder Ross (26 tackles, 8 for loss).

As for the keys to an Early victory, Sandford said, “Offensively we need to execute, move the chains and put points on the board with no turnovers. On defense, we need to get off the field without giving up the big play. Stuff them and force them to punt.”

Last season, Early was defeated by Brady, 43-18.

According to Harris Ratings Weekly, this is game is considered a toss up.