The #1 Hoover Bucs travel to Thompson to play the Warriors in a big Class 7A Region 3 battle at Warriors Stadium Friday night. Both teams are coming into this season at 2-0 and have developed a rivalry the last two years as both teams have split a 2-2 record in their last four games playing each other. Last season, the Bucs won the regular season game, but Thompson won at the Met in the playoff matchup on the last drive of the game and to put the Warriors in the state championship game.
Hoover (2-0) has two wins to open the season against two quality opponents. The Bucs opened the season knocking off #1 Central-Phenix City (17-14) at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery after a 2-hour lightning delay. Last week, they traveled to Milton, Georgia and defeated Cocoa, Florida 37-23. This will be the Bucs third road trip to start the season with late returns back into Hoover.
"Mark has a done a great job over there," said Bucs head coach Josh Niblett. "They do a lot of different things. They have beat everybody terrible. I don't thing their starters have played a second half yet this season. They are probably more rested than us right now. We have been working on the little things this week. If we are going to have "It," and were going to "Own It," than we have to own the little things. We have layed the plan out now and we have to execute it. Our kids have done a great job of not getting down after being down in the game early. We were down to Central with eight minutes left in the third quarter. We didn't waver, we didn't flinch. Last week, our first drive we go three and out and the defense gives up a score, but we didn't waver and we didn't flinch. Our secondary is playing well but our team is real tight nit and ready to compete. I love the makeup about this team.
The Bucs offense starts and ends with Robby Ashford. The Ole Miss commit is having a solid season so far. In two games, Ashford has completed 19-of-39 passing for 276 yards and a touchdown. Also, Ashford has one reception for 8 yards and a touchdown reception against Central-Phenix City. "Robby has a great edge about him," added Niblett. "When your playing quarterback, you can't be jacked up all the time especially before the game. We talked with Robby about it on Sunday, but he needs to be a little emotional. We want our kids to have fun and enjoy the game. When your quarterback has a little fire about him it gets the other guys some fire about them, but at quarterback you have to do it the right way and so he has. I'm excited how Robby has handled himself. He is a leader of the group, he watches extra film, practices the right way. I gave the kids Sunday off cause we have been back so late on the weekends. Someone knocks on my office door on Sunday, Robby has two balls under his arms and he says the receivers and I are going to throw. I gave him the day off but he is in here wanting to get work in. That is big for a coach. When your best players and hardest workers keep working on off days that is something special and we need to keep developing that." No one escapes pressure better than Ashford. Also, you can't just pull him down with an arm tackle when you rush him.
The running back position has been solid with a lot of rotation. Anthony Hayes and Dylan Betts-Pauley lead the way. If they are close to the goal line, it's going to be a hard deal to keep them out. Two hard runners for sure. Throw in Massiah Toland and Nick Young and the Bucs have four strong running back. All four running backs do a good job of catching the ball out of the backfield. Hayes had an 18-yard reception and two rushing touchdowns last week. The Bucs running backs rushed for over 230 yards in three quarters last week.
The offensive line was a little bit of a concern coming into the 2019 season. The Bucs have moved a lot of different players in those five lineman spots and have improved from week one to week two. David Bodden has moved from center to guard this season. "I was so proud of our O-line just handled the box," said Niblett. "They were very physical and did a great job of getting to the second level and not to quick. The offensive line is a tight nit group and we have developed some depth at that position so were excited about that. David is the leader of the O-line but along that he is with the offensive leadership. He is the third brother that has played in this program. He grew up an offensive lineman since he was born. He knows who he is. He understands the game and going to have a bright future along being a big key for us up front."
Juan Sparks, Nick Paradise, Luke Godwin and Harrison Ozgun round out the offensive line. "Harrison doesn't say much at all, but he is very good at left tackle," said Niblett. "You can always count on him to do what he needs to do. He never complains, in the weight room getting after it. He has a good attitude and loves playing the game that I love being around."
Another group with inexperience coming into the season was the receiving group. "Our receivers are continuing to get better," added Niblett. "Making plays from game one drops to great catches in game two in that area." Jamari Buye, R.J. Hamilton, Cooper Tullo, and Malik Thomas keep improving and growing confidence each week with Ashford. Tullo made a great back of the end zone catch in game one and Buye made an over the top deep catch last week. Thomas caught some great deep balls in game one to setup the comeback against Central on the winning drive.
On defense, the secondary has done a great job in the first two games. Kory Chapman at strong safety is a problem for the offense against the run or the pass. "Kory is a football player," said Niblett. "He does anything you ask of him. He is very versatile and he is a leader. That is what I love about him. I'm looking for 11 football players. You can handle the game because he is such a football player. We can do so much on the back end cause he can make us right or make up for somebody and tackle in space." With Chapman is Codey Martin and Seth Parker at cornerback. Maybe the best two in the state. The other safety is Matthew Palmer. Jamal Denson getting valuable playing time due to a Martin injury.
On the d-line, the Bucs have Joseph Davis and Drew Tountasakis at end while Samuel Suswam at nose guard. Linebackers Aarin Smith and Marcus Williams on the outside with Jeppa Kilgore and Josh Smith at the middle linebacker spot. Kilgore has something going about tearing up jerseys in the games and practices. We hope to have more on this down the road. "Josh has played very well," added Niblett. "He has played fast and physical along with Marcus Williams. They have done a great job in their first two games."
The Bucs kicking game have Constantine Hontzas. He kicked the game winning field goal against Central during the Bucs first game of the season. Also, Hontzas handles the punting duties for the Bucs.
Thompson (2-0) comes into this game with wins over Davidson (40-14) and Foley (42-13). The Warriors have done some great play on the field but also some off the field things like a visit to Children's Hospital last weekend. "It was a humble experience for our whole team," said Warriors head coach Mark Freeman. "There is a lot tougher situations than winning and losing football games. At the end of the day I love football and I'm blessed what I do for a living. I want our kids to know its football but there is a real world and things other than football and I think they saw that on their visit to the hospital. So it was good for them."
Thompson comes into the game with a lot of new faces at key positions. They have 15 new players out of the 22 starters on offense and defense. "This is a work in progress and we have to remember this is week 3," added Freeman. "The most important thing is we value the region game as one game against Hoover. They are big, talented and this will be a great measuring stick for our new starters and where are we at. We will need to correct some things I'm sure and improve on different things as the season goes on."
For the Warriors, quarterback Sawyer Pate leads the way for Thompson. The senior quarterback has completed 24-of-35 passing for 398 yards and seven touchdowns in his first two games. "Sawyer has done great," said Freeman. "He has been around for three years and has seen all the game planning and strategy. He was practicing to start in the state championship last year so he is prepared for that. He had a great spring and summer and I think that has carried over to this season."
At running back, the Warriors will give you more than one guy at that position. Jarrett Crockett, Brandon Franklin and Jojo Gaiters will get most of the carries. The offensive line of Connor Howard, Anthony Kilburn, Michael Specht, Kole Mathews and Nyi Nnamdi Aziaya need to get some good experience as the season continues. "They have to get better because they are all new, they just need to keep plugging away," said Freeman. "We make some plays, then we make mistakes. We need to minimize our mistakes so we can survive them. We can't let a blitzer run through us. We know Hoover wants to put pressure on us so we need to be ready for that on the offensive line. We have to be smart and do things to help them. They work hard and I love being around them. I think they are getting better and they are going to be really good by the end of the year." Another standout lineman for the Warriors is Dylan Walker. "Dylan is the only lineman that played for us last year for us" added Freeman. "So he make sure that group understands the intensity and fight they need to have in them. Understand what positions on the football team stand for. Pride, toughness about quarterback and running game. To instill it into those younger guys."
The wide receiver position has some experience. Michael Pettway has a lot of experience and can catch any ball on the field. We will be a threat to the Hoover secondary. Add in Sam Reynolds, J.B. Mitchell and Tre Roberson and the Warriors have a very good receiving group that will go against probably one of the best secondaries in the state.
The Warriors defense have a few returnees. One standout to everyone is linebacker Jeremiah Alexander. The sensational linebacker started last season as a freshman and has really grown into his role on the Warriors defense. "Jeremiah has learned the speed of the game," said Freeman. "I believe you have even players, you need to play the younger guy. The maturity level needs to be there along with the physical aspect of playing the position and he has done it well for us. Him seeing the speed of the game was good for him as he played in some tough situations. I think much, much better as a leader and helping out his teammates this year."
The Warriors defensive lineman have good size with KMarion Hambright, Montaj Cook and Damion Ugbo. Linebackers Sean Bustamante, Jax Van Zandt and Carson Rockett will help out the front line.
The secondary can be special for the Warriors. Ja'Vone Williams and freshman Tony Mitchell are on the corners. Gavin Shipman and Ahmari Bolden are the safeties. The Warriors secondary will need to play big against the young Bucs receivers.
Evan McGuire is a special time talent at kicker. Look for the Bucs to get the ball at the 20-yard line after each kickoff. "It's huge how he can kick it in the end zone on kickoffs," said Freeman. "If we have a windy night, he knows how to float it and squib it and is a big asset to our team."
A couple of thoughts for the game. The Bucs are going to hear it a few times this week about losing to Thompson the last time they played. Can the Thompson offensive line hold their own in the box against the speed of the Bucs very fast defense? Can the Bucs receivers get loose in the Thompson secondary? In the Bucs first two games, they have taken a shot in the mouth by their opponents and have made comebacks. Thompson has not yet played in a game like that this season. How are those young players going to respond? Bring on the game!