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Critical stretch for Red Bay begins with visit to Vernon

For Red Bay football coach Michael Jackson, breaking down film of Lamar County is a little like taking a trip down memory lane. With their impressive blend of size, speed and athleticism, the Bulldogs remind Jackson of his Tiger team from 2015, a group that averaged 40 points a game, recorded six shutouts and generally out-classed almost every opponent on its way to finishing 11-1.

“Their team reminds me of that kind of team,” Jackson said Sunday night. “Very powerful with speed guys. This is a big team, and when I say big team, I mean they’ve probably got seven guys on defense who weigh over two hundred pounds. On offense, their two receivers are as fast as anybody we’ve seen. We’re gonna be challenged.”

Coming off its bye week, Red Bay (3-2 overall, 1-1 in Class 2A, Region 8) will travel to Vernon on Friday night to face a Lamar County team that has bounced back from an 0-2 start to win its last four games by an average margin of 29 points. The Bulldogs, who snapped Red Bay’s 20-game win streak in region play with a 21-20 victory at Fred Bostick Memorial Stadium last year, are once again sitting atop the Region 8 standings at 3-0.

“We’re gonna play the most complete team we’ve played all year,” said Jackson, whose team went into the bye week with back-to-back wins over Hatton (32-30) and Belmont (24-7). “I know they have good skill kids returning from last year. They run the ball well, and they throw the deep ball well. They have the best offensive line and defensive line we’ve seen all year. They’re the defending region champions, and they play extremely well at home.

“The only game they’ve had where they really didn’t play as well was against Oakman, which is a 4A school.”

Since falling to 0-2 with that 40-14 loss to the Wildcats on September 1, Lamar County has hit its stride with consecutive wins over Phil Campbell (54-12), Mars Hill (28-14), Hatton (48-18) and Berry (49-19). An offense built on a strong rushing attack and a quick-strike passing game is averaging 35.3 points per game on the season.

In last week’s rout of Berry, the Bulldogs totaled 473 yards of offense—286 on the ground and 187 through the air on 10-for-11 passing by junior quarterback Ric Rogers. Lamar County had six rushing touchdowns, three of which came from junior speedster Isaac Whittle.

“The best thing they do is run the football,” Jackson said. “They’re a power run team, and the offensive line is the strength of their team. That makes it tough to hold those guys down on the big play, because they can isolate your corners and let them go one-on-one.

“Our secondary will have to play above their heads this week, because every one of them is playing against somebody who is a really good football player.”

Red Bay had allowed a total of just 48 passing yards in its first three games before giving up 255 yards and a handful of big plays through the air in the win over Hatton on September 15. The Tigers bounced back against Belmont two weeks ago, holding their rivals from Mississippi to just 225 total yards and seven first downs.

Young corners Colbie King (a sophomore) and Jalen Vinson (a freshman) will have their hands full on Friday with the speed of guys like Whittle and senior receiver Mark Duncan. Jackson said the play of the entire secondary, which also includes safeties/rovers Max Bullen, Kolby Bragwell and Tanner Nichols, will be critical if the Tigers are to hand Lamar County its first region loss.

“Defensively, it’s gonna fall on the secondary,” Jackson said. “They’re gonna be the key to making [Lamar County] earn everything they get. On the defensive side of the ball, Coach [Jamie] Purser has put together a great game plan. The number one thing for us is to not give up the big play. That’s how they get people out of the game—hitting the deep ball. They like throwing it deep.

“But you can’t empty out the box or they’ll run the ball on you and keep the ball the whole time. That’s what they did to us last year.”

In terms of offensive style, Red Bay’s approach isn’t all that different from that of Lamar County—pound away with the power running game and then use the vertical passing game to inflict major damage in the form of big plays. Senior tailback Aaron Lewey has rushed for 611 yards and seven touchdowns on 109 carries this season; he’ll be looking for his fifth straight 100-yard game on Friday night. Bragwell, the team’s junior quarterback, has also been a major factor on the ground, rushing for 360 yards and four touchdowns on 56 attempts.

As a team, Red Bay is rushing for 260.8 yards per game and 6.0 yards per carry. Bragwell has completed just 29 passes (in 62 attempts) in five games, but those 29 passes have gone for 534 yards—an average of 18.4 yards per completion. Senior receiver Luke Rooker has emerged as a dangerous big-play threat, averaging 20.8 yards on his 16 receptions and hauling in touchdown catches of 54 and 74 yards.

In the win over Belmont two weeks ago, Bragwell threw for 110 yards on just 3-for-3 passing, including a pair of touchdowns to Rooker. Jackson said both players will play a key role Friday night in Vernon.

“Offensively, Kolby is gonna have to have a big night throwing the ball and running the ball,” he said. “He’ll have to make good decisions. And I think Rook has gotta take advantage of his opportunities like he’s been doing and come through for us when it’s time to make a big play.”

Jackson knows that moving the ball consistently and putting points on the board will be a challenge against the Bulldogs’ defense.

“Their defensive front is the strength of their defense,” he said. “The linebackers are solid, and the secondary is those receivers [Duncan and Whittle] who are extremely quick and extremely fast. And it’s all held together by a big free safety who goes about six-three and 215 pounds.

“The number one thing for us on offense is to take care of the ball and not turn it over. Number two, we have to take our shots down the field and make it count when we do. We’ve been doing a good job of that the last few weeks. And number three is drive the football. We have to be able to drive the football to help control the game a little bit.”

The fate of Red Bay’s 18-year streak of consecutive playoff appearances will be determined over the next four weeks, with region games against Sheffield, Sulligent and rival Phil Campbell to follow this week’s trip to Vernon. Each of the Tigers’ first two region games came down to essentially the final play—the win over Hatton and a 26-24 loss to Mars Hill.

“Everything for us from this point out is a playoff game,” Jackson said. “One of these next opponents—either Lamar County or Sulligent—is gonna be the region champion. There’s not even a question about that. I’ve seen them all play. Staying healthy through this stretch will be the big thing, because these are all gonna be physical games.”

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