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Spring Football Review: Golden Tiger offense picks up the pace

JACKSONVILLE - Mark Heaton has always been a proponent of playing fast, but if this month’s spring game against Saks was any indication, Russellville is kicking things up a notch or two for 2017.

Saks, which led 23-20 when the three quarters of varsity action were finished on Friday, May 19 at Jacksonville State’s Burgess-Snow Field, may have held on for the win, but the Golden Tigers kept their foot on the gas all night and eventually wore down the Wildcats with their frenetic pace.

“One thing was, we played so fast, and our kids were in great shape, even for a spring game,” said Heaton, now in his fourth year as Russellville’s head coach. “I felt like we wore them down. Every time we got a big play, they would take a timeout to regroup, because we were going a little too fast for them. They used up all their timeouts in that third quarter, so they would have been in trouble if they’d had to play another quarter.”

Trailing 23-7 late in the second quarter, Russellville cut into the lead right before halftime when rising junior quarterback Devin Buckhalter found rising senior slot receiver Bernard Phinizee streaking down the left hash for a 34-yard touchdown. The Golden Tigers then controlled the third quarter, shutting out Saks and closing the final margin to three points when Buckhalter made an acrobatic grab on a fourth-down pass from rising freshman quarterback Luke Barnwell for a 26-yard touchdown in the final seconds.

“I was very pleased, very optimistic,” Heaton said. “I think the main point I took from it all was the way our guys competed. We were down sixteen points, I think, and our defense came back and got two big turnovers for us, and we scored twice. That last drive, we told our kids to approach it as if we were trying to score to win a game, and that’s what they did. I was very pleased with how well we competed.

“We got a lot of things from the film that will help us focus on stuff going into the summer, as far as where we really need to get better. We got a good idea personnel-wise of how guys will fit in and how we need to maneuver them around to put our team in the best position.”

With that in mind, the Golden Tigers deployed Buckhalter at quarterback for the entire first half and then moved him out to wide receiver in the third quarter. The 5’11, 170-pound dynamo ran the ball effectively in the first half and also hit on a couple of impressive throws, hooking up with rising freshman Cole Barnett on a comeback route for a big third-down conversion and then finding Phinizee in the end zone a few plays later. After moving back to receiver (where he led the team last season as a sophomore with 35 catches for 514 yards), Buckhalter caught a handful of passes from Barnwell on the third-quarter scoring drive—including a tunnel screen that went for 30 yards on a third-and-31 play and then the highlight-reel touchdown grab.

“For Devin to play at the level he did at quarterback with the limited amount of time he had to prepare, he did a great job,” Heaton said. “He’s a very physical, dominant figure back there, and I think the more he becomes comfortable with that, the more explosive he’ll be in that role.

“Being able to get Barnwell in with that first group in the third quarter and get Devin back out on the perimeter was big. The more guys we can get on the field in situations where they can make explosive plays for us, we want to do that. I think that third quarter of the spring game gave us a great indication of the direction we need to head.”

The prospect of Buckhalter joining a loaded set of skill players that also includes Phinizee, rising senior receivers Logan Jones and Robert Hamilton, and rising junior tailback Zaye Boyd is an exciting one for Russellville—and a frightening one for opposing defenses.

“We’ve got a lot of older guys like Devin, Robert, Zaye, Bernard, Logan—that’s a lot of weapons,” Heaton said, “and when you’re able to put all those guys on the field at the same time, it’s exciting. You’ve got a chance to make plays.”

That’s why so much is riding on Barnwell’s development this summer into the kind of quarterback who can be trusted to make the right reads, protect the football and get it into the hands of all those playmakers.

“That’s gonna be what we need him to do,” Heaton said. “We don’t need him to play like a two- or three-year starter. We need him to not make mistakes and just operate the offense. If he can do that, if he can distribute the ball and make the reads he needs to make and get the ball where he needs to get it, he can be successful in our offense.

“He’s gonna be a great player, no doubt about it, but you don’t have to be a great player to be successful in our offense. For Luke, it’s just a matter of being in the fire a little bit and having that opportunity to grow. We’ll make sure he gets that chance this summer in competitions as much as possible and in the fall jamboree as much as possible.”

Whether Buckhalter or Barnwell are taking the snaps, those snaps will be coming at a fast and furious pace. The idea, according to Heaton, is to spread out opposing defenses and wear them down over the course of a game, thereby taking some pressure off an inexperienced offensive line that has only one returning starter (rising senior left guard John David Palmer) from last season.

“We’re trying to go as fast as we can, which helps us rotate in a lot of guys,” Heaton said. “That way our guys [up front] don’t have to be as physically superior as they did in the past. Offensively speaking, we’re playing a lot of younger guys, and we’re doing a lot more run-pass option stuff that allows the perimeter guys to run more routes rather than be more physical blocking. It helps those younger guys play faster.”

Joining Palmer on the starting offensive line for the spring game were rising senior Layne Johns at left tackle, rising junior Ondre Armstead at center, rising sophomore Noah Pounders at right guard and rising senior John David Aycock at right tackle. There’s precious little varsity experience among that group, but Heaton is confident the Golden Tigers can find a way to be productive in the running game again this season.

“What will help us is having those great athletes and playmakers at those skill positions,” he said. “That allows you to get the ball on the perimeter and stretch the defensive front a little bit. If you can do that early in the first half and tire them out a little bit with tempo, that allows your younger guys [up front] to develop and then in the second half run the ball in between the tackles a little more.

“When you’re really good on the outside, the idea is to stretch the field and make those inside guys [on defense] run at a fast tempo. Then, in the third and fourth quarters, you’re able to run inside a little more. Zaye will help in that category, coming off the year he had and putting on a little bit of weight. He’ll be able to run between the tackles a little better.”

Don’t expect the explosive Boyd (who had long runs of 88, 71, 65, 52, 46 and 44 yards among his 25 total touchdowns last season) to suddenly become a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust style of runner, though. On the contrary, Heaton believes the potential for big plays will be even greater in 2017.

“What’s gonna help us a lot this year is the talent we have on the perimeter,” Heaton said. “People aren’t gonna be able to put as many guys in the box as they did last year. I think you’re gonna see a lot of bigger runs from Zaye this year.

“Overall, he did a good job [in the spring game]. I thought at times he did a better job blocking. There’s no doubt he’s gonna be an instrumental piece for us. Guys like Zaye are game-changers. He can take over a game.”

So can Buckhalter, who essentially did just that on Russellville’s third-quarter scoring drive against Saks, which he punctuated with a leaping grab in the end zone against double-coverage.

“Devin came to me at the beginning of that series,” Heaton said, “and told me, ‘I can beat this guy they’ve got manned up on me.’ You want to hear that confidence from your guys, but at the same time you have to make sure you’re taking what they give you. We got in that fourth-down situation after we had a mistake on the snap count, and that put us in a bind. I said, ‘Hey, you know what, let’s get it to him and see what he can do.’

“He made a great play. I’m proud of him. Winners want the ball in that situation. We tried to get it to him, and he went up and made a great play. There were two or three guys over there, and he just went over the top of one guy and pulled it down. He showed great determination.”

Defensively, Russellville allowed fleet-footed quarterback LaDerrick Bell to bust loose for a 72-yard touchdown run on Saks’ third play from scrimmage and gave up a few more chunk plays to the Wildcats’ impressive array of speedy tailbacks. But the Golden Tigers also got a big first-quarter interception from Jones (who returned it 68 yards to the Saks two-yard line, setting up a short touchdown run by Boyd that tied the game 7-7) and another takeaway in the third quarter—despite playing without a pair of returning starters on the defensive line in rising senior end Jeff Lloyd (who missed spring practice due to baseball) and rising junior tackle Will Rushing (who is nearly fully recovered from a meniscus injury).

“Defensively, we’re going with a little bit of a different look,” Heaton said, “and we had some guys out of place when they made those big plays. We corrected that in the third quarter. Plus, they had a lot of kids playing both ways, and they were exhausted. They were having to play tempo defensively against us, and then they’re trying to play fast on offense, too. They were just out of gas. They made some mistakes, and we capitalized on it.”

The Golden Tigers are still running a 3-4 scheme as their base alignment under new defensive coordinator Paul Czervionke, with a few more exotic looks mixed in.

“We’re slanting more, bringing more pressure,” Heaton said. “That kind of plays into the personnel we have a little bit. We’re only gonna get better on that side of the ball. Getting Will Rushing and Jeff Lloyd back will be big.

“We have a couple of guys in new spots. We have the opportunity to be really good defensively, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

That work begins in earnest on Monday, June 5, when the Golden Tigers officially report for summer workouts. Given the youth and inexperience at several key positions, this could be Russellville’s most important summer since 2014—Heaton’s first as head coach.

“Like I told our kids, we’re young in spots, but that’s not an excuse,” said Heaton, who is 27-9 overall and 19-2 in region play in three years at RHS. “That’s not something we want to rely on. We’ve got the summer to get un-young.”

After devoting most of June to strength and conditioning, the Golden Tigers will start their camp circuit on June 27 when they travel to Birmingham Southern for a 7-on-7 competition. Two days later, on June 29, they’ll head to Montgomery to participate in the ALFCA Championships, another 7-on-7 event. Russellville’s quarterbacks and receivers will attend a camp at UAB on June 30, another potential key step in the off-season development of both Buckhalter and Barnwell.

“Having both of those guys able to play quarterback, and being able to use Devin as a weapon all over the field, is gonna be big for us,” Heaton said. “Knowing both those guys and how competitive they are, both of them are gonna work to help us. They’re both humble kids, but they’re very competitive and they both want to contribute. It’s a good situation.”

Russellville will host its annual 7-on-7 competition and linemen challenge at Golden Tiger Stadium on July 14. The night before, on July 13, Russellville is scheduled to face W.S. Neal High School in an 11-on-11 scrimmage. The Golden Tigers will then conclude their summer activities with a three-team 7-on-7 event on July 25 (opponents have not been finalized yet) before opening fall camp in August.

The 2017 season will begin with a fall jamboree at Athens on Friday, August 25.

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