Hawley and Coleman proving football teams can still win with defense

Mike Lee
Special to the San Angelo Standard-Times
Coleman's Ryland Gentry (23) brings down Anson's Jacob Garza (4) in the backfield at Hufford Field on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. The Bluecats fell 38-14.

High-scoring, pass-happy spread offenses have taken over Texas high school football. Or so it seems.

The weekly look around the state reveals scores like 70-56, 55-49 and 49-42. Sometimes you can’t tell the 11-man from the six-man scores.

Pass-oriented spread offenses create one-on-one mismatches, and shorter possessions give offenses more chances to score. At some Class 6A and 5A schools, where players play one way, you hear stories that the offense gets to choose two or three players for every one player the defense chooses.

It seems nobody can tackle these days, especially one-on-one in the open field. Shutouts have gone the way of leather helmets.

This picture of Texas schoolboy football may be true through the regular season and first couple of rounds in the playoffs. But when the calendar turns to December, defense still wins state championships.

Austin Westlake last year won its second consecutive state championship by leading Class 6A in scoring defense at 7.5 points per game. Carthage won its eighth state championship in 13 years last season with a defense that allowed 8.5 points per game in the playoffs. Even Canadian, which led Class 3A Division II in scoring last year at 53 points per game, allowed just 13.

Closer to home this season, Class 2A DI teams from Hawley and Coleman have been flagbearers for defense, combining for nine shutouts this season.

Defensive coordinators David O’Shields of Hawley and Weldon Thompson of Coleman were linebackers both playing for McMurry University in 2001. They still keep in touch, but it’s not like they get together and devise weekly defensive schemes. Yet there’s no denying the emphasis on defense they give their teams.

Hawley’s defense has posted five consecutive shutouts. The 8-0 Bearcats haven’t allowed a point since Sept. 10. They’ve shut out six of eight opponents and allowed 21 points overall this season.

Hawley football coach Mitch Ables talks to a group of seniors before the Bearcats' game against Bangs on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, at Dragon Memorial Stadium in Bangs.

To hear it from Mitch Ables, who was an offensive coordinator before spending the last eight years as Hawley’s head coach, the Bearcats almost stumbled on to their dominating defense.

“We knew we’d have some kids in new positions this year,” Ables said. “We’ve had bigger kids in the past, but the formula just worked out this year to where we have smaller, quicker kids on defense that can get in the backfield and cause problems for the offense.

“You always hope your defense can cause problems, but we didn’t envision shutting people out.”

Hawley’s defense has 24 takeaways, an average of three per game, which has led to a plus-12 turnover margin through eight games.

“We want opposing offenses to worry about our pass rush,” Ables said. “We want the quarterback under duress to where he’ll throw a pass into coverage. We’ve got defensive backs and linebackers that can take the ball away.”

Hawley assistant coach David O'Shields, right, reacts after the Bearcats held Forsan on a goal-line stand as time expired to win on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, at Forrest Field in Hawley.

Hawley safety Kason O’Shields has intercepted seven passes, and outside linebacker Will Scott has intercepted four passes so far this season. O’Shields and Scott each weigh about 160 pounds.

Hez Parker, a 5-foot-7 junior, has been the biggest surprise on Hawley’s defense. “He’s more eager to get downhill. He’s our first linebacker to get across the line of scrimmage. He just has a different gear this year,” Ables said of Parker.

Kyle Nichols, a 165-pound junior, and Corley Williams, a 5-7 senior, have stabilized the defensive line. The Bearcats rotate three defensive ends, including 175-pound Sone Cortes and sophomore Diontay Ramon. The two big guys on the Bearcats’ defense are end Lon Davis at 6-3, 205, and linebacker Austin Cumpton at 6-1, 215.

Besides getting the opposing team’s offense off the field, Ables cited three things having a lockdown defense has done for the Bearcats this year.

“It gives us plenty of chances to score,” the coach said. “As a play caller on offense, I don’t have to take as many gambles. And anytime we can keep the game lower scoring, it just gives us a better chance to win.”

Coleman’s defense has three shutouts this year and is allowing 4.6 points per game. The 7-0 Bluecats raised eyebrows with last week’s 31-7 win over No. 5-ranked Cisco – a win in which the Bluecats limited the Loboes to 222 total yards.

The Bluecats’ defensive prowess is more of a longtime philosophy of eighth-year head coach John Elder.

Coleman coach John Elder looks back at the field as he walks towards the sideline after a timeout against Anson at Hufford Field on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. The Bluecats fell 38-14.

“We want to be strong in the ground game on offense and play hard-nose defense,” Elder said. “Controlling the line of scrimmage is a goal every week. We want our defensive linemen keeping blockers off our linebackers so they can flow to the football, and we want defensive backs that are as physical as linebackers when they get to the ball.”

Elder said Coleman was making big strides last year when the Bluecats were headed toward the No. 3 playoff seed from District 4-2A Division I. But COVID shut down the Bluecats’ season prior to their final regular-season game and prevented more of us from seeing the improvement.

“We were getting a lot better last year, so we came into this year with high expectations,” Elder said. “And our attitude is right because our kids are motivated from losing their chance at the playoffs last year because of COVID.”

But there’s more to Coleman’s defensive blueprint than attitude.

“We’re religious about our tackling drills,” said Thompson, the defensive coordinator. “We want to rip through his shoulders. Keep our eyes on his hips, speed up our foot movement, and grab cloth.

“We tell our kids, ‘You’re not going to make ESPN, so just make a sure tackle.’ A 1-yard loss is a 1-yard loss. We don’t care what it looks like.”

Colton Dollar (88) makes the catch in the first half of Friday's game at Anson between the Tigers and Coleman Bluecats. Sept 3 2021

Ryland Gentry, a 190-pound junior linebacker, received much of the credit for blowing up Cisco’s offense last week. But Elder and Thompson insist it took the entire defense. That includes Gentry, fellow inside linebacker Brent Bouldin, outside linebackers Christian Espitia and R.J. Wright, along with ends David Navarro and Garrett Smith.

The Bluecats have enough depth to rotate four nose guards – 295-pound Jeryd Fain, 220-pound Jorge Salas, 220-pound Gus Allen and 5-foot-5 Dayden Hunter. In the secondary, safeties Jadin Jackson and Denver Hunter are fast enough to cover deep passes but physical enough to hit like linebackers. Coleman also rotates three cornerbacks in Braxton Smith, Cort McFadden and Hogan Johnson.

“I’m telling you, it’s not one guy,” Thompson said. “They thrive off each other. Sure, we have some standouts, but the engine doesn’t run unless everybody is there doing his job.”

Mike Lee writes a weekly high school football column for the USA Today Network's Texas newspapers. Contact him at michaellee7@att.net.