OAKWOOD — It has been 15 long years since the Johnson football team has advanced to the playoffs. While Friday night's showdown with Walnut Grove is just the second Region 8-5A game of the season for both teams -- and does not guarantee anything one way or another for the 2019 playoffs -- a victory at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium for the Knights could help set the tone for a legitimate playoff run down the stretch.
Johnson (3-3, 0-1 Region 8-5A) is coming off an expected loss to No. 1 Buford (56-7) last week. The Warriors (0-6, 0-1 Region 8-5A) have been blown out in all six contests this season, including last week's 42-0 rout at the hands of Loganville, which got its first win of the season after an 0-5 start of its own. The Warriors ride a 9-game losing streak into Oakwood while Johnson is trying to snag its first-ever Region 8-5A victory (0-18) since the current region was formed in 2016.
First-year Johnson coach Stan Luttrell and staff knew the challenges of taking on the Knights' program when they took over for long-time coach Jason Roquemore. On Tuesday, Luttrell, freshman quarterback Jack Luttrell, and junior running back Xzavior Ramsey discussed the crucial game and what a win Friday night would mean for the program.
Head Coach Stan Luttrell...
On the progress the team has made at the halfway point of the season...
“We are right where I thought we would be at this point. We lost our first region game to Buford, who's a great football team. Coming out of non-region, if you would have told us that we're 3-2 going into region play, we would have taken that. Obviously, we wanted to be 5-0, but I think week-to-week, this group has gotten a little bit better. I think they're working hard, trying their best to be coachable and become a better football team.”
On the challenges of building a program at a school with a constant change in demographics...
“First of all, I think with any program you've got to start with the administration and our administration has been unbelievable with the support in the equipment that they're allowing me to have to be able to even run this football program. The school itself, the teachers in the school, this community has been unbelievable. I think that a lot of people don't realize what a strong community Johnson actually has. Yes, it has its challenges, but we got a great school, great community and we’re working on a great football team.”
On the young talent the Knights are developing...
“Let’s not forget we have 14 seniors and they're doing a great job of buying into what I’m selling and trying to learn to lead and to try to buy into my systems. That being said, we do have some young guys. You know Xzavior and Jack, you have Justin Long, who’s doing a great job at linebacker and quarterback/running back. We have Tre Jackson, who’s an outside linebacker we have Frankie (Francisco Almendariz) at guard, (Allen) Gutierrez at tackle -- two sophomores that are starting on the offensive line. I think there are tons of younger guys that are just chomping at the bit to be successful. And this year is important for us to show them what it looks like so that we can have a great offseason and really hit next year full speed.”
On what it would mean to the community to get that elusive first region win...
“I think it would be the next big step. Anytime you build a program you’re taking baby steps, especially a program like Johnson. I think it would be the next big step for us. Beating West Hall was a big deal for us. Winning a region game would be a big deal for us. Having a chance to play through week 10 with a chance to make the playoffs would be a big deal to us.
"But we won't talk about that until it's relevant within our program this year. You know it's been 15 years since the football program has made the playoffs and so that would be a huge accomplishment and it is one of our big goals if I’m totally honest with you. We do know that we have to beat Walnut Grove to have a chance to win another region game. You know they take the top four teams and for us to have an opportunity to be one of those top four, we have to win this Friday.”
Okay then, what do you see as the big keys to this game?
"With me, it always starts with the line of scrimmage. You know, I think we've got to win the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. We can't make critical errors on special teams -- we had two bad snaps on punt last week. We can't give up any explosive plays on defense. We have to make Walnut Grove earn their points. So, I think it starts on the line of scrimmage, then you got to take care of the football; we can't give up explosive plays. The bottom line is we got a block and tackle better than they do and we’ve got to play harder than they do.
“I think (Walnut Grove) is a good football team. They just haven’t been able to finish games. They’ve played some quality opponents. I think we're two very similar football teams that haven't won a lot of games throughout the past few years and I think that both teams are going to be hungry for a win."
Junior running back Xzavior Ramsey...
How do you feel y’all are playing as you enter this week against Walnut Grove?
“I feel like we’re playing pretty good, we just have to hold onto the ball. We can’t make stupid mistakes. But I think the defense has played pretty good most of the season.”
How do you think this season has gone with all the coaching changes and new players, like yourself, that have come into the program?
“It was kind of a tough start. We weren't as strong as we needed to be but over the last few weeks, we've really started to become a family as a team. I like where we are headed.”
Walnut Grove is winless this season but Johnson has not won a region game since the current region was formed in 2016. How important is this game for y’all, especially since it is a very winnable game for y’all?
“It's pretty important. It's our homecoming game. It's important so that we can get another win and try to help us get to the playoffs.
What do you feel are the strengths of this team right now and in what areas do you think you can have some success against Walnut Grove?
“I feel like the defense is the strength but the offense also played pretty well at times. Our defense has really come together and has begun to make plays, meeting at the ball, creating some turnovers. I think special teams is in the area that we can have some success for sure. The way that (Walnut Grove) set up on special teams I feel like we can have a chance to get some returns.”
Freshman quarterback Jack Luttrell...
On how the season has gone so far for the Knights...
“One of our biggest things that coaches tell us is to win the day and I think from the first day of practice we’ve done that and I think we've gotten a lot better.”
On fighting the history of Johnson football and the importance of Friday’s game with the Warriors...
“This is really important for us. We’ve just got to bounce back from the Buford game. That was a tough loss but this is our homecoming game and we're going to have a lot of people watching us. It's going to be the first time, and maybe the only time, some people see us and we just got to show up.”
From a confidence standpoint, how important is this game for the program?
“I mean region games are always important. They have the biggest thing in saying who goes to the playoffs and that's one of our goals this year is to get to the playoffs.”
What is the confidence like in the locker room heading into the Walnut Grove game?
“I think people definitely realize that it's a new team, it’s not the same old Johnson that would just come to work and get by and lose. I think everybody's starting to realize that we can win.”
What do you see as the keys to breaking the Region 8-5A streak and getting a win against Walnut Grove?
“I mean we just got to win offense, special teams, and defense, which is definitely one of our stronger suits. I think we'll have a good chance of doing that but we also need to execute on offense and not turn the ball over and score points.”