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Golden Tigers press on after key injury, prepare for Deshler

Already bearing the burden of replacing five All-State performers from last year’s team, Russellville must now confront the harsh reality of playing the first several weeks—at least—of this season without its most experienced quarterback, best receiver and starting strong safety.

The fact that all those positions are filled by one player only makes his absence that much more significant.

The player in question is junior Devin Buckhalter, who sustained a broken bone in his right foot last Friday night while attempting to make a tackle in the third quarter of a preseason game at Athens. The timetable for Buckhalter’s return isn’t exactly clear, but this much is certain—the Golden Tigers, who open the regular season Friday night at Deshler, are going to be missing perhaps their most valuable piece for quite a while.

“We’re looking at a potential long haul for him,” head coach Mark Heaton said on Monday morning. “It’s a fractured foot. He’s in a cast right now. He’ll go back [to the doctor] in two weeks, and we’ll go from there. It could be six to eight weeks. It could be less, or it could be more. We’ll just have to let it heal and see how it does.”

Buckhalter was in line to share reps at quarterback with freshman Luke Barnwell, who now takes over the starting role and will make his varsity debut under the Friday-night lights in Tuscumbia. Heaton said the team planned to get senior receiver/corner Logan Jones some practice reps at quarterback this week, with sophomore Jacob Davis also moving up the depth chart.

“Luke will take all the reps with the ones now,” Heaton said. “We knew this summer that it was crucial for us to develop him, because with Devin doing as much as he was doing, [Luke] was gonna have to play.”

Barnwell played a lot in the preseason game against Athens last week, completing 17-of-25 passes. He did throw two interceptions, but overall Heaton said he was pleased with how the freshman performed.

“He did a great job on Friday night,” Heaton said. “The two interceptions we had, realistically, were execution errors. On one we didn’t run the route the right way, and the second interception was a situation where we weren’t aligned correctly and that kept us from getting to the right place on our route. Luke threw the ball both places where it was supposed to be, but we weren’t in the position we should have been in to catch it.

“I’m not trying to put blame on somebody else and take it off him, though. Like I told him, it’s his responsibility to ensure that we don’t have turnovers. But I saw a lot of positive things there in terms of leadership and his ability to make a mistake and go right back out there and keep playing.”

The Golden Tigers can’t afford to waste drives on Friday night against Deshler (1-0), which dominated time of possession and beat Haleyville 31-12 last week in new head coach Bo Culver’s debut. The Lions failed to score after the first quarter and ran only 12 offensive plays in the second half, finishing the night with 197 total yards.

“That says a lot for what [Deshler] did defensively, getting stops in the second half,” Heaton said. “They also did a great job controlling the ball. We knew right off the bat they were gonna be better offensively with Coach Culver coming in.”

Culver, who previously coached at Haleyville and Phil Campbell with a two-year stint as Florence’s offensive coordinator in between, has for years orchestrated high-scoring attacks built on spread principles and prolific passing games. Deshler dominated Haleyville on the ground, however, rushing for 352 yards. Quarterback Channing Marmann (166 yards on 21 carries) and running back Kam Pritchard (133 yards on 20 attempts) did the bulk of the damage, with Xavier Trotter adding a 22-yard touchdown run. Marmann also threw for 119 yards on 9-for-15 passing.

Russellville has won 13 of the last 17 games and three in a row against Deshler, but Heaton acknowledged that this isn’t the same Tiger team that finished 2-8 last season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1983.

“They’re better, and we knew they’d be better based on what we had seen from them this summer,” said Heaton, who has a chance to join Doug Goodwin as the only head coaches in Golden Tiger history to win their first four meetings with Deshler. “They have a lot of confidence, which is what you want when you’re coming off the kind of year they had last year. We’ve gotta make a lot of corrections to have a chance to win that football game.

“It’ll be a great game. It always is, regardless. We’ve got our hands full, no doubt. They’re a good football team, but you wanna play teams like that in your non-region games, teams that challenge you and make you better.”

Heaton has high expectations for a defense that—even without Buckhalter—returns nine players with at least some starting experience. Senior ends Roman Cortez and Jeff Lloyd lead a veteran defensive line, and senior linebackers Connor Stults, Bernard Phinizee and Bruce Ambrosio all played key roles a year ago. Jones and senior free safety Robert Hamilton lead the secondary, with junior Wylie Boyd, sophomore Jamaal Hubbard and freshman Rowe Gallagher vying to fill Buckhalter’s spot at strong safety.

“Defensively, I thought we played lights-out the other night,” said Heaton, whose defensive starters allowed 21 points in the 35-7 loss to Athens. “Two of the scores they got came off turnovers. We missed a tackle, and a guy breaks a long run. We go for a pick and barely miss it, and their guy catches it. We just have to clean up our mistakes and find a way to make those plays.

“Special teams, which we didn’t do [live] the other night, will be a factor, too. I told our kids Sunday, I expect that to be an advantage on our end. We’ll work really hard on that.”

As for an offense now looking to replace a three-year starter at quarterback, four starting linemen, its leading rusher and its top two receivers from last season, Heaton is keeping the faith.

“I think we still have a chance to very explosive offensively,” he said. “The other night, it seemed like we were just one or two things away from making some big plays. On our assignments, it was three feet here or a hat placement there from being very explosive instead of ending drives the way we did. I expect to see a big difference offensively from last week to this week.”

Including this week’s trip to Howard Chapell Stadium, five of the Golden Tigers’ first six games are on the road—and now their most dynamic player will be a spectator for all of them. Heaton wasn’t making any excuses on Monday, though.

“I think our guys will respond fine,” he said. “I told Devin, being a leader when you’re on the field playing is a lot easier than it is when you’re hurt, but what we still need from him is leadership. Sometimes, when you’re in the situation he’s in, you can be a more powerful and positive leader—in the locker room, in the classroom, in the community. We have the same expectations for him that we have when he’s playing.

“Personnel-wise, we’ll move some things around and adjust. Like I told our guys Sunday, we don’t have one great player—we have a bunch of great players. We need those other guys to continue to be great players and do everything they’re asked to do and help us win games.”

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