Early Longhorns eye bigger goals after ending playoff drought

Mike Lee
Special to the Bulletin
Early quarterback Jaxyn Price looks for a receiver in the Longhorns' game against Jim Ned. Jim Ned won 46-14 on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, at Longhorn Stadium in Early.

Early ended an 11-year playoff drought last year, and immediately after falling to state power Brock in bidistrict, the Longhorns established their goal for 2021.

“We set a goal on the field after the bidistrict game last year. We want to get back to that bidistrict game, but this time, we want to win it. We want to win a gold football and put a banner up,” Early second-year head coach Daniel Price said.

Early beat Breckenridge 21-0 last year to end a 15-game losing skid in district games. A 52-6 win over TLCA sealed the fourth and final playoff berth out of District 3-3A Division I. The six-team district also includes reigning Class 3A DI state champion Jim Ned, perennially strong Wall and a solid Clyde program.

“I know ours is a tough district with a lot of seasoned programs that have had success in the past,” Price said. “But we set our goal last November. We need to finish higher in our district so we can get out of that fourth-place spot and playing a district champion in bidistrict.”

Earlly running back Alex Jacobs carries the ball against Jim Ned. Jim Ned won 46-14 on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, at Longhorn Stadium in Early.

Early returns eight offensive and eight defensive starters from last year’s 5-6 team. Even during the first week of practice, Price said he could see the effects of making the playoffs last year combined with returning a lot of veteran players.

“The kids showed up with a focus and a goal of where they want to go,” Price said. “We’re way ahead of where we were at this time last year. You can’t replace experience.”

The offensive returnees start with quarterback Jaxyn Price, who passed for 1,148 yards and nine touchdowns last year while starting all 11 games as a sophomore. Tre Beam, a 170-pound senior running back, returns after rushing for 504 yards and seven TDs last year. He also had 238 receiving yards last year. Sophomore Kaleb Ozuna is another running back option.

At receiver, John-Stewart Gordon caught three touchdown passes last year while Caleb McCullough had one scoring catch. The Longhorns have several other possible receivers, including Rylie Hill, Jeremy Brown, Ki Houston, Cedrick Morelan, Gavin Sanders, and Vic Cooper.

“Most of those receivers played a lot last year, and all of them will get a chance to play quite a bit this year,” Coach Price said.

Early players run onto the field before their district opener against Jim Ned. Jim Ned won 46-14 on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, at Longhorn Stadium in Early.

The offensive line returns three starters in 6-foot, 220-pound senior Bradly Roman, center Chris Crawford, and junior guard Chris Fernandez. Korbin Hall, a 2020 starter in the defensive line, is a candidate to start in the offensive line as well. Other offensive line prospects include Kody Sanderson, Fischer Fulton, Casey Moseley, and Cody Jackson.

“We’d like to be a little more consistent on offense,” Coach Price said of a unit that averaged 21.5 points per game in 2020. “We had flashes last year where we played really well. But we had other times when one or two plays would get us off schedule.”

To the coach’s point about offensive consistency, the Longhorns averaged 36 points in their five wins last year, but only nine points in their six losses.

Defensively, the Longhorns return all three starting linebackers from 2020 in Beam, McCullough, and senior Franky Villarreal. Beam logged 95 tackles and six sacks last year while McCullough made 56 tackles, and Villarreal had 51 stops. Ozuna and Sanders should provide depth at linebacker.

Early must replace two starters in the defensive line. Hall is a returning starter at defensive end after making 48 tackles last year, and Moseley started at nose guard. Defensive line prospects include Roman, Fernandez, Jackson, and sophomore Dalton Adams.

In the secondary, Gordon intercepted three passes last year while Brown logged 30 tackles and two interceptions. Tucker Hale returns at safety after making 57 tackles last year. Other secondary prospects include Houston, Morelan, Cooper, Jake Simpson, and Houston Ortiz.

“We’ve got to be better up front this year because we lost a lot of guys that played in the line last year,” Coach Price said of his defense.

After ending its playoff drought last year, Early hopes to finish with a winning record for the first time since a 10-4 finish in 2007.

“Last season was big for our program as far as where we want to go,” Coach Price said. “We want Early to be known for athletics. We felt we established ourselves in a tough district last year. Being in a tough district helps prepare you for the playoffs.”

2021 Early football schedule

Date                Opponent                               Time

Aug. 27           Bangs                                      7:30 p.m.

Sept. 3             at Tolar                                   7:30 p.m.

Sept. 10           Comanche                               7:30 p.m.

Sept. 17           Merkel                                     7:30 p.m.

Sept. 24           at Grape Creek                        7 p.m.

Oct. 1              Open

Oct. 8              at Jim Ned*                             7:30 p.m.

Oct. 15            Breckenridge*                         7 p.m.

Oct. 22            at Clyde*                                 7 p.m.

Oct. 29            at San Angelo TLCA*            7 p.m.

Nov. 5             Wall*                                      7 p.m.

*District 3-3A Division I games