Listen Live
Local Weather
Russellville, AL

Into the Wild: A change on offense has sparked Russellville's late-season surge

Russellville’s late-season surge, a push that has the Golden Tigers on the brink of the playoffs following an 0-5 start, has had many driving forces. Chief among them is the implementation of a Wildcat formation that has given a struggling offense much-needed balance and turned senior back/receiver Bernard Phinizee into a one-man wrecking crew.

Not everything, however, has gone as smoothly with the Wildcat as it would appear on Friday nights. Senior Jeff Lloyd, who serves as Phinizee’s lead blocker at fullback in the new set, remembers what happened when his classmate was asked to throw the football out of the Wildcat in practice one afternoon.

“Well, the first time he threw one at practice it almost went in the bleachers,” Lloyd said with a laugh. “I didn’t know what to think when they called that play the other night, but it didn’t end up in the other team’s hands, so I was happy about that.”

Phinizee’s first career pass attempt (broken up by an Ardmore defender in the second quarter of last week’s homecoming win) went about as well as Lloyd’s first career pass route (more on that later), but in every other respect the shift in approach on offense has been everything the Golden Tigers could have hoped for and more.

Since breaking out the Wildcat in the first half of a loss to Brooks on October 13, Russellville has averaged 201.3 rushing yards and 27.3 points per game while winning two out of three. Those numbers represent a drastic improvement from the first six games of the season (pre-Wildcat), during which the Golden Tigers averaged just 57.2 rushing yards and 10.2 points per game while winning only once.

“They know we’re running it, and they still can’t stop it,” said Lloyd, a 6’2, 205-pound defensive end whom head coach Mark Heaton moved to fullback in Week 6 at St. John Paul II in the hopes of reviving a dormant ground game. “Bernard’s done a good job with it. We get in [the Wildcat], and we’re like, ‘We’re getting five yards on this play,’ or, ‘We’re getting a couple of yards on this play.’ That’s the attitude of our offense right now—we’re gonna go forward.”

Phinizee isn’t big [he’s listed at 5’8, 180], but pound-for-pound he’s one of Russellville’s strongest players. Of the 411 yards he’s accumulated on the ground over the last three games, many have come after initial contact with a defender (or three).

“I’ve got a great blocker in Jeff in front of me,” said Phinizee, who carried 28 times for 150 yards in a season-saving win over East Limestone two weeks ago and then erupted for a career-high 205 yards and four touchdowns on 20 attempts in last Friday’s 44-6 rout of Ardmore. “I just trust him and get behind him. He creates a hole, and I just take it. Our offensive line’s been great, too. They’ve done really good.”

A front five that includes veteran center John David Palmer and four first-year starters (junior left tackle Will Rushing, freshman left guard Edgar Amaya, junior right guard Ondre Armstead and senior right tackle John David Aycock) has steadily improved, and Lloyd has brought an added element of physicality to the rushing attack.

“It’s fun,” Lloyd said. “Bernard will tell me, ‘I’m gonna get right on your butt,’ and I’m like, ‘Here we go.’ I had never played fullback until that week [against St. John Paul]. It was tough at first, but I like getting in a three-point stance and acting like I’m a lineman or something.

“It’s been fun. The first week, I did alright with it. I’m still trying to figure out how to stay on blocks. I’m used to hitting people, but it took a while to learn how to really lock onto them. I’m still getting better with it.”

The same can be said for Phinizee, who had never taken direct snaps prior to lining up as the Wildcat quarterback in the first half against Brooks and promptly breaking off a 41-yard run. [The Wildcat, generally speaking, is effective from a pure numbers standpoint; it takes the traditional quarterback out of the equation, gives the offense an extra blocker and often forces an opponent to move a defender out of the box.]

“The second half of this season was the first time I’ve ever done it,” Phinizee said on Sunday afternoon. “I like it. It’s working.”

And then some. After being held to just 27 rushing yards in the first half at East Limestone two weeks ago, Phinizee has rushed for 328 yards on 36 attempts (an average of 9.1 yards per carry) over the last six quarters. His four touchdown runs against Ardmore covered one, 45, 55 and 25 yards. [He also hauled in an 83-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Luke Barnwell on the Golden Tigers’ first offensive play of the second half.]

After taking the shotgun snap, Phinizee has the option of handing off to fleet-footed senior Robert Hamilton [who rushed for 102 yards and two touchdowns against Brooks in Week 7 and then broke off a 30-yard run on his first carry against Ardmore], but more often than not Phinizee simply keeps the ball and plows forward. Thus far, the Golden Tigers’ version of the Wildcat has been less about deception and more about imposing their will on a defense.

Consequently, Phinizee takes a pounding, one that he usually still feels on Saturday morning.

“I’ve been sore,” he confessed. “But I know I’ve gotta get ready to do it all over again.”

Heaton and offensive coordinator Brett Voss don’t figure to go away from the Wildcat any time soon. In addition to sparking the ground game, it has also freed Barnwell from the burden of having to throw the ball 25 to 35 times a night. In three games since the switch, Barnwell has excelled as a situational passer, completing 24-of-42 attempts for 372 yards and four touchdowns. The freshman made half a dozen critical third-down throws in the 17-13 win over East Limestone and then tossed two touchdown passes last week, the 83-yarder to Phinizee and a 39-yarder to senior wideout Calen Bragwell.

“Luke has really stepped up,” Lloyd said. “He’s gotten better every week. Rowe Gallagher, one of our young receivers, has gotten better every week. All our receivers have. Us running the ball makes [the defense] get ready for it. Then we bring in Luke and throw it a few times, and they’re not expecting it as much as they were early in the year.

“There’s less pressure on Luke when we can start off winning the game instead of getting behind. That’s helps a lot, too.”

Barnwell has thrown nine touchdown passes on the season, but by all rights he should probably have ten. Leading by four in the final minute and facing fourth down deep in East Limestone territory two weeks ago, the Golden Tigers elected to go for the jugular. Heaton and Voss called for a specially designed play, one they had just installed that week, on which Lloyd lines up at tight end and releases from the end of the line before heading toward the end zone. Lloyd found himself wide open on the play in question, with no East Limestone defenders in the vicinity, but Barnwell’s pass bounced off his hands and fell incomplete.

Reliving the play on Sunday, Lloyd couldn’t help but smile. [He may be new at this whole pass-catching thing, but he’s already demonstrating abundant self-assuredness and the ability to divert blame—true hallmarks of any go-to receiver.]

“I’ve never actually run a route before,” Lloyd said. “They told me I was going to on Monday [of that week], and I kind of laughed. Then they actually let me do it. My gloves were soaking wet, my cleats were soaking wet, everything was covered in grass. If we went back and ran that play right now, I’d probably catch it. Everything was soaking wet.

“I was shocked we were even running the play.”

And if Heaton and Voss dare to call his number again?

“Oh, it’s a touchdown,” Lloyd said.

For the time being, Lloyd’s primary responsibility on offense will be continuing to help clear a path in the run game. Next up is rival Colbert County, which visits Golden Tiger Stadium for the regular season finale on Friday night. A win by Russellville (3-6 overall, 3-4 in Class 5A, Region 8) and a loss by Lawrence County (4-5, 3-4) at West Point would put the Golden Tigers in the playoffs—a remarkable feat considering that barely a month ago they were 0-5 and had scored two touchdowns the entire season.

For his part, Phinizee never lost faith that he and his teammates could turn things around.

“It was hard, but we got better as a team,” he said. “As a unit, we came out stronger the second half of the season. We weren’t all playing together. The last couple of weeks, we started playing as a team now. We’re together. It’s clicking the same way, and we’re all playing together.

“I knew we would come together. I knew it.”

The fact that Russellville is even playing meaningful games down the stretch after such a difficult start is a testament to the team’s perseverance under fire.

“It was rough, but we kept fighting,” Lloyd said. “Everybody stayed together and kept fighting. Coach Heaton didn’t give up on us. We kind of felt like all we needed was something small to turn everything around for us. We all stayed together. It was frustrating, and some people quit on us, but we stayed together for the most part and kept fighting.

“We changed one or two things around, and that helped us a lot.”

Critical wins over East Limestone and Ardmore the last two weeks rescued a season on the brink, and now a third straight win could potentially put Russellville in the playoffs for the 17th time in the last 18 years.

“It would mean a lot. That was our goal for the year,” Lloyd said. “With us being seniors, we wanted to start over [at the halfway point] at 0-0 and finish 5-0 the rest of the way and make the playoffs. We’re 3-1 right now.

“It would mean a lot to get in the playoffs and hopefully knock somebody off.”

Perhaps, along the way, Lloyd will get his chance to catch another pass, and Phinizee his chance to throw another one. If so, he plans to complete it this time.

“Yeah,” Phinizee said, “I’m gonna try to.”

comments powered by Disqus
Copyright © 2018 Franklin Free Press All Rights Reserved.
Designed and Hosted by RiverBender.com
113 Washington Ave. NW | Russellville, AL 35653 | 256-332-0255