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Old-school approach has Colbert Heights marching toward playoffs

For Colbert Heights football coach Taylor Leathers, there’s really no debate at all—he’d prefer a shutout to a shootout, any day of the week.

“Any time you can get a shutout, that’s a huge confidence-builder for the team,” Leathers said Sunday evening, two days after his Wildcats had run their record to 5-1 by blanking county rival Sheffield 35-0. “We’re taking a lot of pride in our defense this year. With the exception of the West Morgan game [a 45-25 loss on September 15], we’ve been solid on defense this season. We’ve taken a lot of pride in being a good defensive team. That goes back to my philosophy on how I want to play the game.”

It’s a philosophy that might seem a bit old-fashioned to some and behind the times to others, sort of like the football equivalent of using a flip phone in a smart phone world. But Leathers makes no apologies; he’s convinced that playing physical, fundamentally sound defense—and supporting that defense with a methodical, chain-moving ground game on offense—is a great way to win football games.

“It’s a little different from the mindset of the spread teams that like to throw the football a lot,” said Leathers, a Winfield native and former defensive lineman at UNA who spent four seasons as offensive coordinator at Lexington High before taking over the Colbert Heights program last season. “I’ve been to those clinics and heard those guys speak, and a lot of times there it was almost like, ‘Let’s just let the other team score so we can get the ball back.’ That’s how you get into those high-scoring shootouts. But I believe that good defensive teams win games. Obviously, you have to score some points to do that, but it starts with playing good defense.

“I’m much more comfortable playing the game that way than I am trying to play a shootout with somebody.”

With that in mind, Leathers must be thoroughly enjoying his second season on The Mountain. Coupled with a 30-0 victory over Phil Campbell on September 1, last week’s rout of Sheffield gave the Wildcats multiple shutouts in the same season for the first time since 2003. They’ve allowed a total of just 27 points in their five wins, and only two opponents (West Morgan and Lexington) have managed to score against defensive coordinator Lonnie Robinson’s unit in the first half.

“To me, it speaks to having veteran players on the field who are starting to understand football,” said Leathers, whose team has improved its points-allowed average from 29.5 per game last season to 12.0 per game this season. “In some cases, defense is a lost art in today’s football. So much time is spent [working] on the offensive side of the ball. It’s all about getting the ball in space—not just at the high school level, but at the college and pro levels, too.

“If you go look at the history of scores from a long time ago, many games were won 7-0 or 14-7, those types of games. Throughout history, that’s the way the game’s been played. It was a physical type of game where you lined up and ran the football and the most physical team won the game. The team that played the best defense and got after you, that really hemmed you up and could tackle well, usually won the game. That’s why I’ve always placed a premium on good defense.”

As far as Leathers is concerned, a good defense is a selfless defense. It’s less about individual players making individual plays and more about a group of guys willing to play within a team concept and function as a unit, one in which each man devotes himself to a specific task—no matter how thankless or inconsequential it may seem.

“There’s a mindset out there that you get in a blitzing type of defense and send pressure from everywhere and try and create as much havoc as possible,” Leathers said. “And I’ve seen that be very successful. But we spend a lot of quality time learning how to play fundamental defense. You get in a sound base defense and make sure all your players are fundamental and know how to play that defense, whether it’s a four-four or a four-three or a three-three stack. I feel like you teach a player, ‘In this defensive scheme, this is your job,’ whether it’s to squeeze the tackle and occupy the tackle to keep him from getting on the linebacker so the linebacker can make plays, or whether you’re a one-technique and it’s to draw a double-team every play and make sure you can’t get single-blocked.

“You have to be disciplined to play that way. It’s a mindset of being team-oriented, of being selfless rather than selfish. It’s not about, ‘I’m gonna do my own thing this play.’ It’s about being where you need to be and doing your job.”

Sometimes, where a certain player needs to be might be a place they’ve never been before. Take senior defensive end Bud Pratt for example. Primarily a scout team player prior to this season who saw himself as more of a receiver/linebacker type, Pratt has flourished since moving to end and now helps anchor the Wildcats’ four-man front. He was in the backfield all night against Sheffield, making 3.5 tackles for loss, and ranks fourth on the team this season with 34 total stops.

“Bud Pratt has played good football for us this year,” Leathers said. “This is his senior year, but he hadn’t really stepped on the field until this year. Up until this past spring and summer, Bud was a skill player. He was a slot receiver back in the spread days [prior to Leathers’ arrival, the Wildcats had run their own version of the Air Raid offense for years], but he got bigger in the weight room. We called him in and talked to him, and we told him, ‘For you to get on the field, your best opportunity is gonna be playing defensive end.’

“A lot of kids hear that and think, ‘I’m not a lineman. I’m a skill player.’ Bud has really embraced the role and embraced the change. He’s been down there with the D-line group all year, and he’s done a great job with that this season. The Sheffield game was probably his best game. He was able to get in the backfield a lot. We’re very proud of the way Bud has played this year.”

Pratt’s 5.5 tackles for loss this season are second only to senior linebacker Dylan Chandler, who has six tackles behind the line of scrimmage among his team-leading 51 total stops. Korey Saint, another senior linebacker and probably the most experienced player on the team, ranks second this season with 49 tackles, followed by senior ‘backer Brendan Borden and his 41 total stops. Bevin Foust, who has 27 tackles in five games, completes Colbert Heights’ quartet of senior linebackers.

Pratt is joined on the defensive line by junior end Tyler Tubbs, who recorded a season-high eight tackles against Sheffield last week and also recovered a fumble. Senior Cain Phifer (21 tackles) also plays a key role up front, and situational pass-rushers Chandler Willis and Blane Howard have combined for 4.5 sacks on the year. On the back end, freshman corner Carson Shaw has 23 tackles and an interception, and senior defensive backs Tanner Rickard and Kevin Shaw have each picked off two passes.

Leathers believes that the Wildcats’ transition from an up-tempo spread to a more traditional (i.e. old-fashioned) run-based attack on offense has benefited them on the other side of the ball as well.

“We play a lot of run-heavy teams, and we’re a run team,” Leathers said. “If your offense is run-oriented, it’s gonna help you on the defensive side of the ball. When we say, ‘Hey, they’re running the buck sweep,’ our guys understand what buck sweep is. Or if we say, ‘They’re running power,’ our guys know the fullback is gonna kick out and the guard is gonna loop. That goes back to us running the football on offense.

“Another thing that has contributed to our success on defense is, we spend the same amount of time working on offense and defense every day. I’ve been at other schools and talked to coaches at other places, and they spend the majority of the time working on the offensive side of the ball. We’re pretty close to fifty-fifty.”

The work has certainly paid off. In snapping a six-year losing streak to Sheffield, Colbert Heights held the Bulldogs to just 139 rushing yards on 37 carries and only three completions in 14 attempts. A muffed punt early in the first quarter set up Sheffield with excellent field position, but the Wildcat defense rose to the occasion and forced a turnover on downs. Then, with the game well in hand but the shutout hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter, junior reserve Tyler Taylor jarred the ball loose from a Sheffield ball-carrier just shy of the goal line to keep the zero on the board.

“We had several subs in the game at that point, and it was great to see those young guys preserve the shutout,” Leathers said. “Coach Robinson has done a great job coordinating our defense this season, and our secondary coaches [Scott Hunter and Isaac Fuller] did a great job the other night. We were concerned with Sheffield using their speed to get behind us, but our secondary coaches did a good job of making sure that didn’t happen.

“Coach [Justin] Helms, our D-line coach, made sure we got pressure when we needed to on those passing downs. Once they got behind in the game and started trying to throw the football, we did a good job with our pressure.”

Offensively, the Wildcats complemented their latest stalwart defensive effort with a clock-controlling ground game that produced 270 yards on 40 attempts. Kevin Shaw, the team’s senior quarterback, posted his third straight 100-yard game, finishing with 106 on just nine carries. Chandler (a 6’2, 180-pound fullback) served as the closer, rushing for 58 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries. Borden added a 26-yard touchdown run, and Shaw hooked up with Braden McCaig on a 19-yard scoring toss.

After struggling early this season on offense, the Wildcats have now increased their scoring output from 25 points to 27 to 35 over the past three weeks. They’ll look to keep it rolling this Friday at home against Class 3A, Region 8 opponent Elkmont, which has allowed 40-plus points four times during a 1-5 start.

This week is homecoming for Colbert Heights, but Leathers is bound and determined to make sure his team doesn’t take the Red Devils lightly.

“Like I told our guys, not a lot of people are gonna remember the bonfire or the car smash,” he said. “Very few people will remember the parade. What will be written down in the annual is who won or lost the homecoming game. That will always be remembered. Our part this week is the game. Homecoming is great for the alumni and the school, but our part is from seven o’clock to nine-thirty on Friday night. That’s when we have to take care of our business.

“This is a must-win region game,” added Leathers, whose team is 2-1 in Region 8 with four region games remaining. “We can’t have a lull when it comes to these region games. Each step we take in the region is gonna set us up for getting in the playoffs, and once we’re comfortably in, these games will set us up for seeding.”

Late last week, just prior to the Sheffield game, Leathers had a conversation over lunch with Jacob Walker, the Wildcats’ new boys basketball coach and a Colbert Heights alum.

“He told me we’d been breaking streaks all year long,” Leathers recalled, “and we had another streak to break. We beat Red Bay [14-6 in the season opener], and that broke a streak of six losses in a row to them. Then we beat Lexington [27-7 on September 22], and that broke a streak of five straight losses to them. I told him going into the Sheffield game, ‘We’ll see if we can get another one.’”

The Wildcats did so in historic fashion, beating the Bulldogs for the first time since 2010 and posting their largest margin of victory and first-ever shutout in 21 all-time meetings with Sheffield. But there’s little doubt as to which streak Leathers and company are most eager to end. They’re dead-set on reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2011—and a win on Friday over Elkmont would be a big step in that direction.

“That’s definitely been on my list since I took the job,” Leathers said. “This is year six, I think, of the playoff drought. It’s been five years without going. These next four games down the stretch are gonna determine whether we get in and what seed we get in with. Hopefully we can continue to play well.”

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