That’s how the old saying goes, right?
Ultimately, for the Bulldogs or Red Devils’ league title hopes, a strong effort on defense to kick off conference play is a necessity in Friday’s Three Rivers opener at Red Springs.
“For us, we’re just going to play with intensity and worry about doing the little things correctly on defense,” St. Pauls coach Trey Sasser said. “Red Springs’ offense is one of the more intricate we’ve faced and our guys will have to play their assignments and not make stupid mistakes.”
The Bulldogs have struggled with keeping the opposition out of the end zone much of this season, but they’ll get a substantial break against the Red Devils if quarterback Blake Greene and wide receiver JuJu Brown are held out due to injury. Both players did not practice Tuesday after being taken out in the second half of last week’s loss at Goldsboro.
Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes, but for Red Springs — the preseason conference favorite — this wouldn’t be an ideal scenario heading into the biggest game thus far this season.
“We’re going to prepare like usual, the best way we know how,” said Red Springs coach George Coltharp, the county’s reigning coach of the year. “We’re not going to change our offense just for this game if (JuJu and Blake) can’t play. We’ve got a veteran offensive line and another quarterback who is young, but comfortable with our system. I think Doody (Jedarian Lesane) is one of the county’s best backs, too.”
Greene was in jeans at Tuesday’s practice, going over the offense with second-team freshman quarterback Cody Freeman and last year’s backup Zach Jones. Jones has started every game at tight end but could see snaps under center in this week’s game.
In limited action, Freeman has thrown three touchdown passes this season. Coltharp said the playbook won’t shrink if Freeman is the starter.
“Both Zach and Cody know the offense and understand what we’re trying to do,” Coltharp said. “Blake just gives us a different dimension. In a lot of ways, Cody kind of reminds me of Blake.”
If Brown sits out, senior slot receiver Zach Leach is the unit’s hidden gem, producing near identical numbers as his teammate. Leach’s reception, yardage and touchdown totals are second only to Brown and he’s the more reliable of the two at catching the football.
A challenging non-conference slate, Coltharp hopes, has prepared the Red Devils for Three Rivers competition.
Red Springs is averaging 57.3 points per game this season in three wins and 15 points per contest in three losses — South Columbus, 4A competitor Sun Valley and veteran-laden Goldsboro. Meanwhile, St. Pauls hasn’t lost since the opener, winning each game by double digits. No team has slowed down the Bulldogs’ offense, but at times, St. Pauls’ defense has given up big plays.
“We’ve put in some personnel changes here and there defensively and we’ve got faith in our guys on that side of the ball,” Sasser said. “It’s a game we have to play well in all three phases to win. We can’t have a letdown offensively and we’ll have to be sound on special teams.”
St. Pauls quarterback Kane Banner is the area’s most efficient quarterback with 928 yards passing and 515 yards on the ground. His 17 total touchdowns is second only to Greene, but he’s thrown six fewer interceptions. Banner has taken control of offensive coordinator Scott Barbour’s no-huddle with flying colors and will try and take advantage of an inexperienced defense Friday night.
“We know they supposedly have the No. 1 offense in the state,” Red Springs linebacker Markeiss Blue said. “So we know our defense has to play well. We haven’t really played bad, just a few big plays have hurt us.”
Senior Shawn Williams gets most of the shine on a unit averaging almost 350 yards per game on the ground. Williams leads Robeson County in rushing and rushing touchdowns and hasn’t been held under 145 yards by any opponent this season. The 6-foot-1, 250-pound wrecking ball has already surpassed last season’s 1,000-yard campaign and has garnered interest from North Carolina A&T.
“Stopping Shawn is the main goal for us,” Blue said.
Added Coltharp: “We know Williams is the workhorse who will probably get 25 totes, but the big thing for us is slowing down the rest of team and their explosiveness. We can’t fall asleep because they’ve got several other guys that can hurt us.”
Early in the season, the Bulldogs averaged more than 70 plays per game but that has settled down in recent weeks against squads with faulty defenses. It’s been a month since all of St. Pauls’ starters have played in the fourth quarter. Outside of Sun Valley’s spread, the Bulldogs’ offense will be the best Red Springs has faced this season.
“They do a good job of getting to the line and doing what they want to do, mixing it up,” Coltharp said. “It’s kind of a pick your poison with them. They kind of took a page out of our book based on what we did last season and that’s getting the ball out quick to all their athletes.”
Coltharp went on to praise Williams and wideout Malik Livingston as St. Pauls’ version of “Thunder and Lightning”, a direct reference to the James Davis, C.J. Spiller Heisman-caliber tandem at Clemson in 2008. Williams is the power runner while Livingston relies on speed.
Livingston’s mainly a threat on special teams, but when he has touched the ball 32 times on offense, he’s scored six touchdowns and averaged 12.6 yards per play. Then there’s wide receiver Deion Gilchrist, a starter on the basketball team who didn’t play football last season.
Six of Gilchrist’s 13 receptions over the last four games have gone for touchdowns.
“Thunder makes you nervous, but lightning can kill you,” Coltharp said.
Across the board, St. Pauls is huge up front, anchored by Shayron Jones. The Bulldogs “out-size” the Red Devils at nearly every position at the line of scrimmage, but Red Springs relies on its speed — led by defensive end Mike Graham — to put pressure on the quarterback and stop the run.
Sasser isn’t worried about who will play and who won’t for Red Springs, but did say this game’s been circled throughout the offseason at St. Pauls. Payback for last season’s 57-6 home loss to the Red Devils perhaps, but more importantly it’s the first step toward the Bulldogs’ ultimate regular-season prize — a conference championship.
“Our coaching staff and our players are looking forward to the start of conference because winning the league is always one of our goals every season,” Sasser said. “We aren’t afraid to come out and say that. This is the first opportunity we have in reaching that goal and I’m sure our guys will give their best effort.”