The wait is over as the Brownwood Lions’ first season opener at Gordon Wood Stadium since 2014 — and the start of the Sammy Burnett coaching era — take place Friday night in front of a national television audience.
The Lions, ranked No. 19 in Class 4A Division I by Harris Ratings Weekly, host Class 3A Division I preseason No. 1 Brock, as the Eagles are coming off an appearance in the state championship game.
Opening the season at home against at top-ranked foe in front of the Fox Sports Southwest cameras could cause plenty of concern about distractions, but Burnett is pleased with the approach the Lions took in their preparations this week.
“What I’m enjoying is the fact that they’re not getting caught up in the hype,” Burnett said. “They don’t talk about Fox or TV, they’re just focused on the task at hand. They’re just going to work and doing what they need to do. We’re just trying to prepare ourselves physically and mentally so that when we step on the field Friday night we’ll have the confidence that you need. Like I told them before, if you go into a test and you’re not prepared for it you’re going to be panicking and stressing about the possibility of you passing or failing. When you go and study for that test you’re waiting for that door to open and you run and sit in your seat and you’re just waiting for them to hand you that test so you can be successful. That’s how our kids are responding.”
Kickoff is slated for 5:30 p.m. with a high temperature of 98 degrees forecast. Playing on turf, which considerably increases the heat level, conditioning could play a crucial role in the contest.
“It could play a big part for both teams, but I think it’s going to play a lesser part for us,” Burnett said. “We have a little bit more in terms of numbers than they do, we’ll probably carry 10 more kids on the varsity. We still have about the same amount of kids that go both ways. But I’m proud of the fact that our kids have bought into the conditioning part of practice. We had a conversation with several of them and they’ve said they were good. The TV timeouts will give them a little more time to breathe, but that’s not a concern of mine at this point because I think we’re where we need to be at this time.”
Brock, led by head coach Chad Worrell, returns eight offensive and seven defensive starters off last season’s 13-3 state finalist squad.
Quarterback Tripp Jones (1,265 passing yards, 12 TDs) leads an offense that features Texas A&M commit Baylor Cupp at tight end, along with massive offensive linemen John Brunner and Julio Sanchez. The Eagle defense is anchored by linebacker Zakk Young, who amassed 203 tackles a year ago — an average of 13 per outing.
“They’re led by their quarterback, Tripp Jones, and he’s really good,” Burnett said. “He’s an operator and throws the ball well, but they don’t do a ton of passing. They do a lot of play action off the run. They’re basically an under center team. They’re going to be two-back, three-back, one-back motion to two-back. They will spread it out every once in a while. They’ll get in some two-back gun with a sniffer. They’ll get in trips and throw it around, but their M.O. is to get under center and try and hit you in the mouth. They have two probably 6-foot-3, 300-pound plus kids that they put on the same side, at guard and tackle, with Cupp, the big 6-foot-6 tight end that’s going to Texas A&M, and they just try and mash you.”
The Lions will answer with a 3-4 defense that will likely feature Jayln Jones, Theo Bryant and Santanna Espinoza (52 tackles, seven for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery) up front, Hayden Tunnell (71 tackles, 13.5 for loss and five sacks), Ian Moreno, Hunter Leonard (56 tackles, 11 for loss, six sacks and a safety) and Rowdee Gregory in the linebacking corps, and Zach Strong, Anthony Larrea, Grayson Swanzy, Clayton Bertrand and Braden Jetton will rotate in the secondary.
“We’re going to be as physical as we can be up front,” Burnett said. “Defense wins championships and we’re trying to gel them into a group that’s not cocky or arrogant, but confident. They play hard and they play fast and swarm to the football, that’s our mentality.
“We’ve got three guys that I think can handle the brunt with Jayln Jones, Santanna Espinoza and Theo Bryant. They’re going to get in there and get after it, and the youngster, Kris Hobbs, he’s not as big as those guys but he’s really aggressive and a ball hawk. Our linebackers, Ian Moreno and Hayden Tunnell, they’re football players and sort of mean, and that’s what you want in a linebacker. Outside we have Rowdee Gregory and Hunter Leonard and they’re not shy about contact, they embrace the challenge. On the back end we have Zach Strong, Anthony Larrea, Grayson Swanzy, Clayton Bertrand, we got the guys and I think we have a great scheme. The defensive has done hours and hours of prep and we have a good game plan for them and we think we can be successful. We found some tendencies we think we can use, so we’re going to try and take advantage of that.”
The Lions averaged 38 points and 401 yards per game last season, led by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football District 5-4A Division I preseason offensive player of the year Tommy Bowden (143 of 228 for 2,194 yards, 26 TDs, 1 INT; 548 rushing yards, 9 TDs) at quarterback.
Brock, meanwhile, yielded just 15 points per game in 2017.
Other weapons returning on offense include receivers Jetton (34-568, 7 TDs), A.J. McCarty (39-785, 9 TDs), Leonard, Swanzy and Ben Kallman. Joseph Johnson, Reece Rodgers and Khyren Deal are taking over in the backfield, while the offensive line is completely revamped. Potential starters include Jones at left tackle, Ulysses Villarreal at left guard, Brandon Farrow at center, Jacob Ruiz at right guard and Bryant at right tackle.
“On the offensive side we’re going to exploit their back end with our passing game and try to protect,” Burnett said. “I would assume they’re going to try and send one more than we can block and we’re just going to try and get rid of it and set up some plays. We’re still going to run the ball, and we’re going to try and control the line of scrimmage.
“Our offensive line is doing well and growing every day. They’re always the slowest to develop and slowest to gel, but I think we took a real big step Tuesday. I saw some physicality in practice with our defensive scout team with a lot of varsity kids and they’re holding them accountable and we got some tempers flared up. That’s good and shows a little passion with them trying to make our offensive line better. I was pleased with the growth and if we continue that, when you flip that switch and all the sudden it happens and you gel, you can be pretty special. The offensive line is the heartbeat, no doubt about it. What I try and get them to understand is anything positive that happens on this football team on the offensive side is because of the offensive line.”
According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Brownwood is a 3-point underdog. The Lions look to prove doubters wrong Friday night, and begin the Burnett era on a winning note.
“Our kids aren’t intimidated, they won’t be intimidated,” Burnett said. “We’re Brownwood, we’re going to do what we do, go out there and be physical and do everything we can, lay it on the line and let the Lord take care of the rest.
“Our mentality is you don’t come to our house and tell us what to do. We’re going to try and dictate what we do and we’re definitely not going to fear anybody, but respect everybody. We’re going to go out there and do what we do, and hopefully that’ll be good enough. If not, we’ll go back to the drawing board and correct what needs to be corrected and continue to grow and we’ll be successful.”