Brownwood Lions second-year head coach Sammy Burnett has been pleased with what he's seen from the squad during nearly a month of preseason practice. But the first true test of where the Lions stack up occurs at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Class 3A Division I No. 6 Brock.
The Eagles visited Gordon Wood Stadium last season and coasted to a 41-10 victory in Burnett's debut as head coach. Burnett anticipates the Lions will be a better team in his second season, while Brock is not as highly ranked in the preseason as it was a year ago – which should lead to a more competitive contest this second go-round.
“I think we're ready to go,” Burnett said earlier this week in regard to the season opener. “We've had some good days of practice. We're making sure we have all phases of the game in order and that everybody's where they're supposed to be. I think we have a great scheme that gives the kids the opportunity to be successful, they just have to go out and execute and play with great passion. If we do so, I think we'll be fine.”
Entering his second season as head coach, Burnett is more familiar with the Lions, as are they with the coaching staff and schemes, which should translate into fewer first-game hiccups than what Brownwood experienced a year ago. A more consistent effort will be required against a Brock program that has become a machine since its inception in 2012.
“Last year they caused a bunch of confusion because we weren't very knowledgeable in our scheme at the time, we'd only been doing it a couple of weeks and now we have a year under our belts,” Burnett said. “We have a lot of kids that are going to be starting on Friday night for the first time, so hopefully they won't be a deer in the headlights and can get out there and execute and win their one-on-one matchups.”
The Lions' playbook Friday night may be limited, similar to what was seen during scrimmage action against Liberty Hill and Burnet.
“We're going to simplify what we do,” Burnett said. “We're not going to run a bunch of plays, but we we're going to run the plays we run well. We want to get bodies on bodies and sustain our blocks long enough so we can get our running backs to the next level. If we can do that and get past the linebacker we'll be one-on-one with a safety and I like that matchup.”
Offensively, the Lions will be led by new quarterback Drew Huff – a transfer from Mineral Wells — while Reece Rodgers (278 yards, 2 TDs) and Royshad Henderson are expected to handle the bulk of the carries in the backfield. Top receiving threats include Baylor commit A.J. McCarty (57-779, 6 TDs), Zach Strong (21-380, 5 TDs), Khyren Deal, Dane Johnson, and Isyah Campos, among others. Up front, the line is expected to be anchored by Theo Bryant at left tackle, Bradley Robinson at left guard, Ethan Pesina at center, Brandon Farrow at right guard and Jimi Brown at right tackle.
Brownwood will again be battling Brock's 10-1 defense — anchored by linebacker Jesse Hallmark (129 tackles, 4 sacks) and free safety Luke Dillingham (2 INTs) — which limited the Lions to 179 total yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown last year.
“Defensively, cause confusion is what they try to do so what we're doing scheme-wise is being simple and making sure we can execute,” Burnett said. “They're stunting somebody every play, either bringing one linebacker or both or they'll get in that 10-1 and just get in gaps, try and penetrate and get to you before you can get through them or get the ball off. I think our our schemes are good, if we can just execute those schemes and pick up our assignments I think we'll do fine.
“With that 10-1 playing straight man coverage with a safety in the middle of the field, if you can get to the next level you can have some success and gain some yardage, so that's our goal offensively.”
Defensively for the Lions, the front line will likely feature Kris Hobbs (28 tackles, 2 for loss), Ezequiel Ibarra (7 tackles), and Bryant (13 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 sack), among others. Rowdee Gregory (50 tackles, 5 for loss, 4.5 sacks) and Cooper Swanzy lead the way at inside linebacker while Damion Jones (59 tackles, 3 for loss, 1 INT) and Landon Harris are penciled in at outside linebackers. The secondary will include Henderson and McCarty (12 tackles) at the corners, and Strong (24 tackles, 4 INTs) and Deal (45 tackles, 1 INT) playing the safety positions.
Against Brock last year, the Lions yielded 369 yards — 203 on the ground and 166 through the air, including scoring tosses of 53, 61 and 20 yards.
“Last year they threw five balls over our heads that led to touchdowns, that's 35 of the 41 points they scored basically through the air,” Burnett said. “We stopped them at what they do best, which is running the football, and I think we can do that again this year. We just have to be disciplined with our eyes in the back end and make sure we're reading the tight ends, the wings and the backs coming out and making sure we're covering the passes along with supporting the run with our secondary.
“I think Coach (David) Jones and Coach (Brett) Mouser have put a great scheme together. We're going to have to move a bunch and adjust to what they're doing, but we'll be in a defense that allows us to stay put and just read our keys and play fast.”
Logan Lightfoot is taking over at quarterback for Brock, a receiver a year ago, while Kutter Wilson is expected to be the lead back. Center Matt Attaway and guard Jake Hearn return to the anchor the line.
“They're ranked No. 6 in the state for a reason,” Burnett said. “They're a good program with lots of juniors and seniors on the roster. They have a couple of kids back, Logan Lightfoot played an outside backer for them last year and played some receiver for them, and he's going to be the quarterback. He's a big kid, thick, put on some weight, a pretty good left-hander that throws the ball pretty well. They have a couple of good running backs, but I don't know too much about them other than seeing scrimmage film. They're not as big up front as they were last year, but still very physical and very fast.”
The Lions enter the season opener with a near clean bill of health, which Burnett hopes the team can maintain throughout the contest. That, along with conditioning, could determine who emerges victorious.
“We're about as healthy as we've been,” Burnett said. “We've had some dings, banged up ankles and shins, all that, but for the most part we're healthy. Hopefully we can stay that way because we're thin, sort of the same as Brock. We're going to suit up about 34-35 kids and they're going to be in the same boat. They're in the same position as we are, playing a lot of kids two ways as will we. They can't afford injuries, nor can we. I think cardiovascular conditioning is going to be big and I think we're right where we need to be there. If we can stay healthy and stay fit to where our mind doesn't start fading on us and we worry about fatigue instead of following assignments, hopefully by the fourth quarter we can out-physical them and take over the ball game. I think it's going to be a close ball game.”
According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Brownwood is a 12-point underdog.