EARLY — The start to the 2016 football campaign is not what second-year head coach Blake Sandford would have drawn up, but a new opportunity presents itself with the start of District 3-3A Division I action Friday night.
The Longhorns (0-4) — who are seeking their first postseason appearance since 2008 — target their first victory of the season as the Brady Bulldogs (2-3) come calling at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Early’s season thus far has featured losses to Bangs (34-8), Roscoe (41-20), Bruceville-Eddy (44-0) and Paradise (41-7). Brady, meanwhile, has defeated Pecos (38-21) and Llano (21-7) with losses against Lago Vista (42-32), Coleman (28-19) and Comfort (21-0).
As for the Longhorns’ approach to the district campaign, Sandford said, “You amp it up a little bit. You try and take everything you’ve had from the season so far and put it all together and take out what’s not working and exaggerate what is working to get them in a mindset that anything’s possible once you get to the district race.”
Looking at the District 3-3A Division I picture, Clyde and Brady appear to be the teams to beat early on, a sentiment Sandford echoed.
“The district as a whole is very good and there’s not a weak team in the bunch,” Sandford said. “We’ll have our work cut out for us every week. They’re all coached well, they’re good programs going in the right direction. For us, starting with Brady and Clyde right off the bat are two teams we have to play very hard against.”
Though the Longhorns have taken their bumps during the pre-district slate, Sandford has been pleased with the resolve his squad has demonstrated.
“I’ve been most pleased with their character and effort,” Sandford said. “It takes a lot of character to go out there and keep trying to do something when you haven’t had a whole lot of success on the scoreboard. It’s hard to measure success in character and heart and these kids have done a great job responding and putting up a fight against some of the teams we’ve been facing.”
The area is which the Longhorns need to see the most dramatic improvement is offense — particularly producing points. Early has mustered just 35 points the entire season and has scored only once in the first half through four games.
“Offensively we need to put together drives without killing ourselves and score points,” Sandford said. “I want to see us score more.”
Early is generating a mere 9 points and 209 yards — 107 passing and 102 rushing — per contest. Receiver Drew Sessler has been the biggest playmaker on offense with nine receptions for 276 yards and four touchdowns. Other receiving threats include Griffin Ehlers (6-81), Devyn Burns (5-30), Abe Morris (3-16), Chase Keilers (3-8) and Hayden Turner (3-4). Quarterback Trace Evans has completed 29 of 90 passes for 400 yards with four scores and three picks. On the ground, the Longhorns are led by Turner (128 yards), Christian Alcorta (118 yards) and Evans (115 yards).
The Longhorn defense, meanwhile, is giving up 40 points and 423 yards — 338 on the ground and 85 through the air — per outing. Defensive leaders include Ehlers (38 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack), Morris (34 tackles), Miguel Elizondo (30 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 FR), Eric Diehl (22 tackles, 2 for loss), Jim Fowler (21 tackles, 1 FR), Sessler (20 tackles, 1 for loss), Alcorta (17 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack, 1 FR), Xavier Yebra (16 tackles, 2 for loss), Mason Flippin (16 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR), Teddy Ozuna (15 tackles, 4 for loss), Adrian Alfaro (14 tackles, 1 for loss), Keilers (13 tackles, INT), Tyler Kirkland (12 tackles), Christian Mills (11 tackles, 1 for loss) and Turner (11 tackles).
“Defensively we have to be able to stop the run,” Sandford said. “Brady runs the ball well and we’ve worked hard this week on trying to stop it.”
The Bulldogs enter district competition averaging 22 points and 371 yards — 286 rushing and 85 passing. Quarterback Caleb Turnell has been the driving force for Brady, rushing for 809 yards and nine touchdowns while completing 37 of 67 passes for 339 yards with a pair of scoring tosses and two interceptions. Other key contributors include running back Weston Bauer (296 rushing yards, 3 TDs) and receivers Austin Allen (13-112) and Dylan Mork (9-103, 2 TDs).
On the defensive end, the Bulldogs have given up 24 points per game on average. Top performers include Beau Jacoby (44 tackles), Zack Vaughn (35 tackles), Derek Connell (31 tackles) and Bauer (28 tackles).
“Brady’s very good, very physical and they run well. It’s a good football team,” Sandford said. “Coach (Chuck) Lipsey has some big kids that can move, the quarterback’s very good, and the defense is solid so it will be another test, and we’re excited about it.”
According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Early is a 37-point underdog.