EARLY – Seeking their first postseason appearance since 2008, the Early Longhorns draw the No. 9 Eastland Mavericks as District 3-3A Division I competition begins with a 7:30 p.m. Friday road contest for fifth-year head coach Blake Sandford's squad.
The Longhorns (3-2, 0-0), who are coming off their bye week, will attempt to hand the Mavericks (5-0, 0-0) their first loss of the season. Early's most recent outing was a 63-0 homecoming victory over Hico — the first shutout for the Longhorns since 2009 and the most points scored in a game since 2013.
“We're really eager, really excited to see what we're made of and where we're at,” Sandford said. “Like we said we before, it's all been leading up to these games that we have in district so we want to make sure and put our best efforts out there. Hopefully we've seen some things that have happened in these games that will help us going forward.”
The Longhorns experienced their share of highs and lows during the pre-district slate, but Sandford believes valuable lessons were learned by the team throughout the first five outings.
“We had some things that went our way and we accomplished a lot the first five games, and there's some things I felt like we left on the table that we didn't get accomplished,” Sandford said. “Each moment that you do this you grow from it and learn. You can get better each week each step of the way.”
As for how the Longhorns spent last week's bye, Sandford said, “A lot of it was to heal, make sure grades were kept up, and that kind of business. The days we were outside we would focus on one side of the ball and really get back to fundamentals and techniques and get a handle on preparation for the first district game.”
Led by highly sought after junior quarterback Behren Morton, who has received multiple Division I scholarship offers, Eastland enters the contest averaging 46 points and 435 yards — 260 passing and 175 rushing — per game.
Morton has completed 73 of 112 passes for 1,265 yards with 13 touchdowns and just one interception. Morton isn't the lone threat, however, as Brandon Fielding has rushed for 559 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 10.2 yards per carry. Additional weapons in the passing attack include receivers Alex Gonzales (23-431, 2 TDs), Anthony Bonila (16-419, 7 TDs), Dylan Wilson (11-115), and Fielding (9-54).
“We need to play sound defense, be sound in coverage, and be good tacklers,” Sandford said. “They have a really good running back, a really good quarterback, and we need to tackle well. We're not taking anything away from Eastland, we just need to be good at what we do in terms of tackling and pass defense.”
Early's defense is allowing 25 points and 257 yards — 168 rushing and 107 passing — per game. Standouts include Tre Beam (52 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 FR), Ryan Jones (46 tackles, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks), Sebastian Perez (39 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 FR), Reece Bolton (34 tackles, 3 TFL, 0.5 sacks), Tyson Tyler (20 tackles, 1 TFL), Braden Schwartz (19 tackles, 4 TFL) and Marcus Morelan (18 tackles, 4 TFL).
On the flip side of the ball, the Early offense produces 32 points and 403 yards — 214 rushing and 189 rushing — per game on average.
Quarterback Brent Grooms has completed 57 of 90 passes for 947 yards with nine touchdowns and one interception, while rushing for 286 yards and a team-best six touchdowns. Tre Beam (329 yards, 4 TDs) and Alex Jacobs (317 yards, 4 TDs) have shouldered the bulk of the load in the backfield, while receiving threats include all-stater Timmy Smithson (30-697, 8 TDs) along with Beam (6-43), Rylie Hill (6-27), Jacobs (5-36), Jeramiah Fowler (4-62) and Carlos Moreno (4-53, TD).
Eastland's defense yields 17 points per game and has recorded five takeaways. Leading the way are Nathaniel Cruz (18 tackles), Payton McClain (15 tackles), Bonila (14 tackles), Dillon Broyles (13 tackles), Jaxon Fambro (10 tackles), and Jayden Tibbets (10 tackles).
“The main thing for us is to convert when we need to on third down and move the chains,” Sandford said. “We need to make sure we're in ball control status and not having anything we can control go against us. We have to win the turnover ratio, take care of the football, move the chains, and be sound on our offensive assignments.”
The Longhorns lost to Eastland by 14 points last year, and Sandford believes Early can go toe-to-toe with any foe that remains on its schedule.
“The teams are different from last year to this year, but we feel like we can play with anybody, but we need to play well,” Sandford said. “If we can do that you give yourself a really good chance to win.”
As for potentially coming away with a victory Friday and a 1-0 start to district, Sandford said, “That would be great. It's tough enough to win anyway in Texas high school football. Each win you have you cherish and this would be one the kids could really spring forward to the next few games with.”
According to Harris Ratings Weekly, Early is a 42-point underdog.