The victories keep piling up for the Class 4A Division I No. 6 Brownwood Lions, but the level of competition continues to increase as well as a reigning Class 5A Division II state semifinalist stands between second-year head coach Sammy Burnett's squad and a 4-0 start.
The Lions (3-0) welcome the Wichita Falls Rider Raiders (2-1) to Gordon Wood Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Friday in a rematch of last year's 20-16 Brownwood road victory.
“We're excited about the opportunity,” Burnett said. “We've had a great week of practice and our kids are still focused and understand now that they're getting the respect that we've been working hard to get and that I think they deserve, now we have the burden of keeping that ranking and staying at the top of our game.
“Our mentality is, this time of year you have some good teams and teams that aren't so good, but the difference between being good and great at the end of the year is daily work and how you climb from where you are and continue to step up that ladder and become better at your craft, your skill and your discipline so that when you get to district you've gone from a good team to a great team. That's what our goal and focus has been.”
Brownwood has knocked off Brock, 10-0, Snyder, 70-3, and Graham, 28-14 to begin its season, while Rider owns victories over Amarillo, 38-24, and Saginaw Boswell, 47-34, with its lone loss coming to Azle, 35-33.
“The difference in the Brownwood Lions and the Azle Hornets is the Brownwood Lions aren't as big as Azle so they were able to push them around on the ground a little bit,” Burnett said. “We'll have our hands full but it's going to be fun, it's going to be another slobber knocker and we're going to get ready to go.”
In Rider's 14-point win over Amarillo last week, the Raiders jumped out to a 21-0 lead after one quarter and were up 31-13 at halftime. Rider finished with 467 yards — 253 rushing and 214 passing — and converted 6 of 12 third downs with a pair of turnovers.
Quarterback Jacob Rodriguez completed 13 of 26 passes for 214 yards with one touchdown and one interception, while rushing for 89 yards and another score. Latrevius Byrd led the ground game with 125 yards and three scores while Nick Darcus caught a team-best eight passes for 161 yards with a trip to the end zone.
“They're led by their quarterback,” Burnett said. “He throws the ball like the Graham quarterback but also has the ability to run, he's difficult to take down. You have to contain him so we're going to spy him a little bit and make sure we keep him in the box and make him deliver the ball, then we have to cover downfield. But we're going to put pressure on the quarterback with different stunts and things like that.
“Byrd's not a big kid, a 5-4, 155-pound running back but he's a jitterbug, makes people miss, and does well in space. Nick Darcus is a 5-9, 155-pound receiver but has the same skills as a running back. They do a great job in space, burners that can run extremely well so we have to do a good job defending them. They do a good mixing up the run and pass and have a good scheme for both, and they're big up front.”
Defensively, Rider gave up 218 yards to Amarillo — 140 passing and just 78 rushing — while forcing one turnover and allowing just 2 of 11 third down conversions. Safety Jack Hatch and linebackers Mason Conner and Alex Esparza led Rider with five tackles each while tackle A.J. Sargent finished with three takedowns and a sack.
Rider's defensive front could provide the Lion offense with its greatest challenge to date.
“A.J. Sargent is 6-2, 272, Isaiah Wetzel is 6-foot, 255, and E'maurion Banks is 6-5, 265, so our front five will have their hands full,” Burnett said. “Their linebackers do a great job. They try and play the run game with five and spread the outside linebackers out and try and play run/pass with them. Their safeties (Hatch and Daine Wilson) do a great job of fitting on the run.
“There's a lot of similarities to the scheme that Graham ran so we're familiar with what they do. They obviously have different personnel up front so we're going to have to get our double teams and make sure we take care of the ground game and also protect and make sure our quarterback has the ability to get the ball off.”
Defensively, the Lions have scored more points than they've allowed through three games — 18 to 17. Brownwood gave up its first touchdowns of the season last week and for the year are surrendering just 6 points and 218 yards — 118 rushing and 100 passing — per game on average, with eight takeaways, including three interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Leading the way defensively are Kris Hobbs (23 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 FR), Cooper Swanzy (22 tackles, 1 FR), Rowdee Gregory (21 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT), Khyren Deal (19 tackles), Landon Harris (17 tackles, 1 sack, 0.5 TFL), Damion Jones (15 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 INT), Zach Strong (13 tackles, 3 INTs), Theo Bryant (13 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks), Ezequiel Ibarra (13 tackles, 2 sacks, 1.5 TFL), A.J. McCarty (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Royshad Henderson (10 tackles, 1 TFL).
“They've picked up the scheme well which gives us the opportunity to continue to vary from that with some stunts and some coverage changes,” Burnett said of the defense. “They have a great foundation with what we've set in place but yet they're continuing to grow and pick up a little bit more and it's allowing them to play with a clear mind and understand their checks. The ability to have a clear mind and play fast is key for us and that's what the kids are doing. They're extremely disciplined on their keys as well, which is important.”
On the offensive end, the Lions — who are still turnover-free through three outings — generate 36 points and 325 yards — 172 rushing and 153 passing — per outing.
Quarterback Drew Huff has completed 21 of 39 passes for 442 yards with four touchdowns while rushing for 169 yards and two scores. Reece Rodgers leads all rushers with 266 yards and four trips to the end zone, while primary receiving threats include McCarty
(9-238 yards, 3 TDs), Isyah Campos (4-135 yards, 2 TDs), Strong (4-75) and Dane Johnson (2-16).
“We're doing a good job protecting the ball on the ground and Drew does a great job running the offense,” Burnett said. “There's a lot on his plate, a lot of checks to make, a lot of coverages to read and knowing what our RPOs are and options that come off that. He's done a great job of managing that. He needs to just keep doing what he's doing, keep managing the game, slow it down, process it, see it and put the ball where it needs to be and he's done a fine job of that.”
The Lions will be without lineman Brandon Farrow due to injury until possibly the second district game, according to Burnett, as Tyson Tiner will fill in as he did in the second half of the Graham game, joining Bryant, Ethan Pesina, Brad Robinson and Jimi Brown up front.
“Brad Robinson and Jimi Brown have done an outstanding job, Tyler Tiner is stepping in for Brandon, Theo Bryant is our anchor, and our sophomore Ethan Pesina is doing outstanding job at center,” Burnett said. “We have some other kids that are going to step up and play but we're real thin in that area and can't avoid any more injuries.”
According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Brownwood is a 10-point favorite.