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Heaton: Season is a marathon, not a sprint

Mark Heaton learned a valuable lesson a long time ago about the toll inexperience can take.

“My old head coach told me once that for every sophomore you start at the 5A level, that’s one loss,” said Heaton, now in his fourth year running the Russellville program. “I need to call him and find out how that works with freshmen.”

Heaton was being humorous, of course, but last Friday’s season-opening 35-3 loss at Deshler was no laughing matter. After playing well at times on both sides of the ball in the first half, the youthful Golden Tigers—who had no fewer than five freshmen playing significant snaps, mostly on offense—took their lumps in the second half, getting out-scored 23-0.

“We had a lot of execution errors, a lot more in the second half,” Heaton said. “Some of that was fatigue, and some of it was having some guys in positions they’ve never been in before. We’re still having to learn from those mistakes and those situations. That’s gonna get better the more we play.

“We’re trying to get our guys to understand, this season isn’t a sprint—it’s gotta be a marathon for us. We’ve got a lot to learn as we go through some things and a lot of experience to gain. But as we get that, if our guys will maintain a positive attitude and a great work ethic, we’ve got a chance to get better and win some games down the stretch that will affect the playoff picture.”

With that in mind, a win for the Golden Tigers (0-1) against Lee (1-0) in the Class 5A, Region 8 opener at Louis Crews Stadium in Huntsville on Friday would almost qualify as a bonus, a head start of sorts for a team that figures to get better—and, Lord willing, healthier—as the season progresses. Heaton acknowledged on Monday that the margin for success is “very thin” right now—particularly for an offense playing without junior Devin Buckhalter, a dual-threat quarterback and dynamic big-play receiver who is expected to miss six to eight weeks after breaking a bone in his foot in the preseason game at Athens on August 25.

“What you saw Friday night was, we’ve gotta be able to sustain long drives,” Heaton said. “We can’t make a lot of mistakes, because we’re just not a big-play team at this point. Everything is pretty methodical. We can’t afford those penalties that set us back on early downs or keep us from getting points.”

On its opening possession against Deshler, Russellville picked up four first downs (one of which came when senior back Robert Hamilton bolted for 22 yards on a third-and-20 play) and gained 71 yards on 12 plays, ultimately settling for a 24-yard field goal by Samuel Bahena. On their 10 remaining drives for the rest of the night, the Golden Tigers had nearly as many punts (six) as first downs (seven) and netted only 130 yards on 49 plays.

Meanwhile, a defense that played well—especially up front—for most of the first half suffered a couple of untimely breakdowns on Deshler’s second drive, first allowing junior quarterback Channing Marmann to scramble for 12 yards on fourth-and-seven and then giving up an easy touchdown toss from Marmann to receiver Hayden Stutts on fourth-and-goal from the 14-yard-line.

The Tigers cashed in a short field late in the second quarter, extending their lead to 12-3 on a three-yard touchdown run by senior back Xavier Trotter. After picking off a pass by freshman quarterback Luke Barnwell to thwart a Russellville scoring opportunity right before the half, Deshler dominated the third quarter to open up a 28-3 lead and put the game away.

Reflecting on the loss Monday afternoon, Heaton was in a glass-half-full kind of mood.

“I think the main thing is how much better our guys played in the first half,” he said. “We played two really good quarters of football. We saw a lot of improvement with early execution in comparison to the week before [a 35-7 loss in the preseason game at Athens]. It’s hard to walk off the field after a 35-3 loss and say you felt like you played better, but I thought we did in that first half.

“We left some points on the field, and on that first scoring drive by Deshler we gave up two big fourth-and-long conversions. So it’s like we told our kids, we have to find a way to make those big plays that really impact the game when we have the opportunity. I didn’t feel like we did that the other night, and Deshler did.”

The Tigers wound up rushing for 223 yards on 30 attempts, including 107 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries by Marmann. He also threw for 132 yards and two scores on 10-for-15 passing.

Bright spots for Russellville on offense were fewer and farther between, but there were at least a couple. Hamilton, seeing his first extended time on offense after playing exclusively at corner last season, had seven carries for 62 yards on the Golden Tigers’ first two drives of the night. He finished with 70 yards on 18 attempts and also caught four passes for 34 yards.

“We’ve been looking for a guy to step up and make plays,” Heaton said, “and Robert brings that big-play capability to the table. He’s done a great job transitioning into helping us on both sides of the ball. We just have to find a way to get him some rest early on in the game so he can be fresher in the second half.”

Ten different players caught a pass last week for Russellville, with Hamilton and senior receiver Calen Bragwell (four receptions for 35 yards) leading the way.

“We’re gonna have to be a team offensively that spreads the ball around,” Heaton said. “That can be tough to defend week in and week out, and it makes it harder for opponents to prepare for you. You have to take what people give you and be patient, and on the first drive the other night I thought we did that a lot. The more we can do that, the more explosive we can be down the road and the less predictable we’ll be.

"The key is, all those guys have to make plays.”

Barnwell finished his first varsity game 21-for-33 for 125 yards, with one interception. Fullback Brooks Scott, another freshman, rushed three times for 11 yards and also caught an 11-yard pass. Fellow ninth-graders Rowe Gallagher and Cole Barnett each had one catch for six yards, and freshman Edgar Amaya played virtually every snap at left guard. Grayson Eady, yet another ninth-grader, handled the punting duties.

Lee won its opener in thrilling fashion last Friday, beating Grissom 24-23 in overtime. The Generals prevailed when quarterback (and holder) Noah Watkins picked up a botched snap on an extra-point attempt and raced around right end for the game-winning two-point conversion. Watkins finished the day 6-for-11 for 110 yards and two touchdowns—a 46-yarder to KeMari Artis and a 13-yarder in overtime to Darious Taylor.

Lee also found the end zone on defense when senior linebacker Jalen Humphrey (6’1, 230) scooped up a first-half fumble and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown. Humphrey (whose monster afternoon included 14 solo tackles, two sacks and a safety) leads a fast, athletic defense that also features 6’6, 269-pound end Malik Langham (a three-star recruit who has received at least eight SEC offers) and veteran defensive backs Chris Reid, Cortez Brooks (6’0, 210) and Curtis Brooks (6’0, 195).

“Defensively, they’re pretty good,” Heaton said. “They’re very good and very athletic. Their defensive front is pretty solid. That’s why the kicking game and special teams are gonna be so important for us, as far as shortening the field and taking some pressure off our offense.

“Special teams can win this football game for us. It can literally make us 1-0 in the region. I think we’ll have a chance to make a lot of big plays in that category that can help us win a region game on the road against a very athletic football team.”

Russellville’s defensive front flashed play-making potential last week at Deshler, with senior outside linebacker Bernard Phinizee and senior ends Roman Cortez, Jeff Lloyd and John David Aycock all making things happen at (or behind) the line of scrimmage. Heaton believes that group will play a vital role this Friday against a Lee offense still finding its way early in the season.

“They’re struggling to find an identity on offense,” he said. “They’re running a little bit of Wing-T, but they’re struggling with it a bit, and that helps us. We’re strong up front, and against the Wing-T you’ve gotta be strong defensively up front.

“I thought our guys controlled the line of scrimmage most of the night last week. We need them to play above and beyond right now, and you saw some of that. They were in the backfield all night disrupting plays.”

The Golden Tigers are 19-2 in region play since Heaton arrived. Russellville leads the all-time series with Lee 11-2, winning 10 straight meetings since a 35-20 loss in 1991.

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