EARLY — The Early Longhorns are undefeated after two games for the first time since 2001, and now set their sights on a feat not accomplished in 20 years — a 3-0 start to the regular season.
Following wins of 60-20 at Bangs and 41-18 at Coleman, Early opens the home portion of its schedule at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Longhorn Stadium against the winless Tolar Rattlers.
The last time Early won three consecutive games to start a season was 1998, as the Longhorns knocked off Water Valley, Mason and Cisco. But Early fourth-year head coach Blake Sandford isn’t as concerned with what happened in the past as much as he is the present and future.
“We’re not into matching records as much as we are focusing on what Tolar does and how we can beat Tolar,” Sandford said. “Twenty years ago these kids weren’t even born so I don’t know how much that matters to them. Winning the game is important, then everything after that is great. We’re playing for lots of reasons — the hard work they’ve put into it and for the pride of our community and our fans. It’s nice to hear those other things that go along with winning, but we’re focusing on what is here and what is now.”
Tolar (0-2) has started its season with losses of 40-14 to Crawford and last week’s 36-23 defeat at the hands of De Leon.
In the Rattlers’ opening setback to Crawford, Tolar managed just 149 total yards — 102 on the ground and 47 through the air. Mason King rushed for 66 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown, while Wesley Miller chipped in 36 yards. Miller also completed 3 of 8 passes for 36 yards with a touchdown and an interception, while Ethan Tramell connected on 2 of 3 tosses for 11 yards. Reese Robinson led all receivers with three catches for 33 yards while Brice Scott and Gage Winston caught passes covering 8 and 3 yards, respectively.
Defensively, King, at safety, finished with 20 tackles trailed by outside linebacker Brett Jackson with 14 and middle linebacker Braegan Berry and Miller, at safety, with 10 apiece.
“One of the things I like about facing Tolar is we’re facing an offense that’s similar to ours, so we see it every day in practice,” Sandford said. “They’re going to line up in the spread and hit the quick screens and run the RPOs and things like that, so it’s going to look similar to what we do. There will be some familiarity with the kids in terms of lining up on defense and what they’re trying to do. They do have some big boys that can move the ball, a big running back, so we’re going to have to be great at tackling.
“They’ll line up in a 3-4 look on defense which is something we really like seeing. We saw some of that in the scrimmage against Reagan County. Hopefully we’ll be able to move the ball against them, but again they’ve got some size and some skill kids in the back end that do a great job. They have some big, big linemen and what we’re going to have to really concentrate on first is to make sure we know where we’re going and what the correct assignment is. Once we can do that, once we can play fast, then I think we’ll be successful.”
The Longhorns are coming off last week’s 41-18 victory over Coleman, a game in which Early led just 21-18 at halftime, but dominated the final two quarters.
“We had some mistakes early on that we don’t normally make and it was uncharacteristic for us to do that,” Sandford said. “The thing I was most pleased with is the kids didn’t panic when the score was a little close. They just went to work in the second half.
“Coleman held the ball and had some sustained drives, so we had to make some adjustments at halftime to be able to stop some of that stuff. Our coaching staff did a great job on the defensive side on being able to change the dynamic of the Coleman offense.
“Offensively for us, we only had 30-something snaps but our kids are just so explosive. Our offensive coaching staff, I put them up there among the best in the state at just being able to find the spots we can exploit on the other team and get the ball into our playmakers’ hands. That was really exciting to see.”
Through two games the Longhorns — behind an offensive front of Logan Gillem, Patrick Valencia, Jadyn Lehde, John Griffin and Ethen Portillo, among others — are averaging 50.5 points and 595.5 yards of total offense, with 307 coming on the ground and 288.5 through the air. The vast improvement in the running game has been the catalyst for Early’s explosiveness on offense thus far.
“We decided we wanted to do two things, stop the run and develop the run,” Sandford said. “The O-line has embraced that challenge of wanting to run the ball and Ryan (Trompler) at quarterback is another threat to run the ball when he’s not dealing it down the field. It gives us more weapons that we’re able to use. If they shut something down we’re able to go to something else.
“At Coleman it was a messy night and the stars weren’t aligned right, but the running game was there and we are able to utilize that. We have great backs that are able to get down the field a little bit and have good vision and balance.”
Trompler leads the ground game with 224 yards and five touchdowns on just 19 carries, followed by Cale Wade with 151 yards and a touchdown and Jesson Tarrant with 133 yards and two scores.
Through the air, Trompler has connected on 26 of 52 passes for 577 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. Timmy Smithson has nine receptions for 325 yards and four touchdowns — an average of 36 yards per catch — while Ty Schafer has chipped in eight receptions for 185 yards and Tarrant has grabbed four passes for 32 yards with a trip to the end zone.
Defensively, the Longhorns are surrendering 19 points and 319.5 yards — 197.5 rushing and 122 passing — per outing, with five takeaways. Leading the charge are Brandon Lombrano (20 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 FR), Schafer (17 tackles, 8 TFL), Stephen Holt (15 tackles, 1 TFL), Jonathan Morales (15 tackles), Lehde (15 tackles), Jose Pesina (14 tackles, 2 TFL), Carlos Moreno (11 tackles, 2 TFL) and Smithson (9 tackles, 2 INTs).
“Last week against Coleman we made some adjustments with our front, trying to not allow some things they were trying to do, like running the iso and trying to bottle that thing up, and I thought our kids did that,” Sandford said. “We were opportunistic and had moments where we were able to get the defense off the field and force them to punt and get the ball back in the offense’s hands. It takes much more than just a scheme, though, it takes a relentless effort by the kids and I’ve been really proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Looking ahead to the keys to the Tolar game, Sandford said, “I want to see the confidence level continue to rise in our kids and the continuation of successful drives on offense with no miscues, no mistakes, and tighten up everything we do offensively. We also want to see the tackling improve, we always want to be good at that. Everything that we do is trying to get better so we can achieve everything we want to achieve later on when it gets to district play.”
According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Early is an 11-point underdog.