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Simple approach on defense has Wildcats at 2-0

Prior to the start of the season, Colbert Heights football coach Taylor Leathers ordered up a bundle of chrome “CH” decals in anticipation of handing out helmet stickers after each game to reward his team for wins and his players for standout individual achievements.

At the rate his defense is performing, he may need to order a new batch by October.

“Once again, the majority of our stickers went to the defensive side of the ball,” Leathers said on Sunday evening, two days after his team improved to 2-0 with a 30-0 win at Phil Campbell. “That’s the second week in a row we’ve seen our defense play well, and we’ve been very proud of that. Any time you shut out a team, we take pride in that. Everybody on the team got a sticker for the win, and everybody who played on defense got a sticker for the shutout.

“We wanted to reward the whole defense. Phil Campbell was driving with the football at the end, and it was good to see our young guys preserve the shutout.”

Those younger guys were simply picking up where the Wildcats’ defensive starters and rotation players left off. One week after largely stifling Red Bay’s power running game in a 14-6 win, coordinator Lonnie Robinson’s unit held Phil Campbell to just 190 total yards while recording the team’s first shutout since a 39-0 rout of West Morgan in the final game of the 2015 season.

A year ago, Colbert Heights allowed a total of 59 points in its first two games; this season, the Wildcats have given up only six—to the same two opponents. Leathers credits a streamlined approach that has allowed his defenders to spend less time thinking and more time making plays.

“I would say we’ve simplified things from last year to this year,” said Leathers, whose team ended up allowing an average of 29.5 points per game while going 4-6 in 2016. “That’s the key ingredient for us this year. I give a lot of credit to Coach Robinson, our defensive coordinator, along with Isaac Fuller and Scott Hunter and the other guys on our defensive staff. We wanted to simplify things on defense and be sound on everything we did.

“On defense, you can do so much that if the kids aren’t getting it, they’re not gonna be where you want them to be. So we’re trying to keep it simple on the defensive side of the ball and just focus on each individual doing their job.”

Those jobs are not all the same, of course. In the Wildcats’ 4-4 scheme, defensive linemen like 300-pound Isaiah Miller, 250-pound senior Cain Phifer and active junior Tyler Tubbs tie up blockers at the point of attack, allowing senior linebackers Brendan Borden (19 tackles in two games), Dylan Chandler (17 tackles), Korey Saint (17 tackles) and Bevin Foust (14 tackles) to run to the ball and make plays. [Senior end Bud Pratt, who has 14 tackles thus far, also falls into the playmaker category.]

“It starts with those guys up front,” said Leathers, whose team limited Phil Campbell to 59 rushing yards and kept constant pressure on Bobcat quarterback Peyton Thomas throughout the night. “The job of our defensive line is occupying offensive lineman. That’s what they’re doing. Then the linebackers are gonna be sound and be in good position. Their job is to read their keys and recognize formations, which is another thing our defense has done well so far.

“We know based on tendencies and film study what [offenses] are gonna do, and we relay that to our players so they know what to expect when it gets there. But they still have to make the play. The credit goes to the kids for making the plays on the field.”

Leathers and company have simplified things on the back end, too, where starting corners Carson Shaw and Tanner Rickard and whoever happens to be playing safety (usually senior Kevin Shaw or junior J.J. Michael) are now only responsible for playing two different coverages—as opposed to the four or five they played last year.

“The goal is to give fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-year-old players less to think about,” said Leathers, who spent four years as an assistant at Lexington prior to taking over the Wildcat program last season. “The best defensive teams I’ve been around, once the game started those guys just went out and played. There was not a lot of calling being done on defense. They just recognize the formation, and they play it.”

That’s not to say that Leathers and his staff aren’t pushing a few buttons. They installed a “rabbit” package last week against Phil Campbell, deploying smaller, quicker slot-backs like senior Chandler Willis as pass-rushers in certain situations to get more pressure on Thomas, who threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns against the Wildcats last season.

The strategy was highly effective. Colbert Heights was leading just 7-0 in the third quarter when Willis raced into the backfield and took down Thomas in the end zone for a safety to jump-start a 23-0 second-half run—and earn himself an extra helmet sticker.

“A sack is an effort play,” Leathers said, “and we had several sacks the other night. They were throwing the ball a lot with a really talented quarterback, but those sacks are effort plays. We preach, ‘Don’t give up.’”

Leathers had another pointed message for his team at Sunday’s meeting, when he walked into the room and wrote, “The road to the playoffs starts now,” on the white board. The Wildcats haven’t been to the postseason since 2011, but a win at Clements (1-0) in the Class 3A, Region 8 opener on Friday would be a pivotal first step toward ending that drought.

“This week is a huge region game,” Leathers said. “Our region, across the board, is more competitive than it was last year. For us to continue on the path with our goal of returning Colbert Heights to the playoffs, it has to start this week. We need to have a great week of prep and get our offense rolling.”

The Wildcats had scored just 21 points in six quarters this season before busting out with three second-half touchdowns in the rout of Phil Campbell. They’ll look to keep that momentum going on offense while continuing to get lights-out play from their defense and special teams unit, which blocked a pair of punts against the Bobcats.

“That second half last week was the best we’ve played on offense all year,” Leathers said. “It’s just a matter of us having better mental focus on that side of the ball. But there are three phases in the game, and when one phase is not playing well, it’s great to see the other two step up and really carry us.”

The defense will almost certainly see more speed from Clements than it did in either of the first two games. The Colts only scored 14 points in a season-opening win over Danville two weeks ago, but Leathers was impressed by what he saw on film.

“I’ve been coaching against Clements for six years now,” he said, “and this is the best and most complete Clements team I’ve seen. On offense, they run the football. They run it a lot based on numbers. They’re gonna try to out-flank you. It’s really a single-wing offense out of the shotgun, with a lot of moving parts.

“They have two quarterbacks, in a sense. Both of those guys are splitting the center, both of them have their hands up, and they can snap it to either back and then they’re off to the races. They really like to attack the perimeter.”

The Wildcats beat Clements 22-9 at home last season, extending their win streak in the series to four games.

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