JEFFERSON — The logistics of a long road trip can be a major headache for a high school football coaching staff.
The worry of buses, meal planning and where to stop for walk-through practice before the game all the while dealing with practice over the Thanksgiving holidays. But it’s all part of advancing to the quarterfinal round of the Class 3A playoffs for the Jefferson Dragons.
And, although coach Gene Cathcart recognizes the potential pre-game obstacles, he’s OK with it.
“Anytime you’re practicing Thanksgiving week, that’s a sacred thing for a football team,” he said. “This one is excited to be doing that. What a great opportunity for us, and what a great team to be spending time with.”
They’ll battle Region 1-3A No. 1 seed, Crisp County (9-3) on Friday at the Cougar Den in Cordele. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. and can be heard live on FM 102.9 WDUN.
It’ll be another test for the Dragons against a run-heavy team that is a bit more diverse in balance than last week’s opponent, Appling County.
The Cougars' three losses this season have been to playoff teams from higher classifications -- all by five points or less. Their defense is No. 3 in Class 3A in points given up, and the offense is averaging 32 points per game.
As far as playmakers, they do have a few. Sophomore running back Marquise Palmer is at the top of the list, boasting Class 3A-best 1,259 rushings yards. He's also scored 16 times this season. He had 95 yards and two touchdowns against North Hall last week.
Leading the air attack is junior quarterback AJ Lofton. He gives the Cougars a dual-threat option and adds balance to the offense with his arm and legs. Last week, he rushed for 111 yards and passed for 105 in the 41-3 win over North Hall. He has 878 yards on the ground this season and passed for another 675 yards.
On the defensive side of the ball, Michigan State-commit Chris Paul Jr leads a defense that’s giving up just 10 points per game. He also is the team’s top tackler with 128 this season.
“Their running back does an incredible job,” Cathcart said. “They also have an athletic quarterback and their defense is tough. I think having the ability to distribute the ball will be key for us on offense. I think we’ll have to make some plays in the passing game to loosen them up a bit.”
“This year, if you’re still swimming in the pond, there’s not any fish left in the pond. There are all really, really good teams. Certainly, we know this will be a great challenge Friday night.”
It’s no secret what the Dragons do offensively. Cathcart says “it’s not sexy.” But who cares.
The spread-option attack, led by senior quarterback Colby Clark, is averaging 42 points per game and the 337 rushing yards per game is No. 4 in Class 3A. Clark was the catalyst in last week's 28-7 win over Appling County. He rushed for 126 yards and four touchdowns in the win and has 1,007 yards rushing on the season and 23 touchdowns.
They’ll rotate Kade McNally, Kolton Jones, Jordan Perry and Malachi Starks in the backfield behind offensive linemen Mason Ware, Dylan Ryoul, Gage Swilling, Colton Steele and Colton Dufresne. The front wore down a bigger Appling defensive line last week.
“Without a doubt, it all starts up front,” Cathcart said. “Our offensive line has done such a great job all year. Colby reading things behind them and he’ll be ready certainly some stellar athletes that can flat out move on their defensive line Friday. Anytime you see those big bodies that have single-digit numbers, those usually are war daddy-type players, and they’ve got several of those players up front.
“There’s not many times we don’t line up that we’re outsized a little bit by folks and this won’t be an exception this Friday. All of those guys have done an unbelievable job for us and for us to play well Friday, they’ll have to continue to do that.”
Defensively, Rem Maxwell, McNally, Paxton Corkery and Kadin Bailey, lead a defense that gives up 10 points per game but will have to find a way to slow down the Cougars and get off the field on third downs.
“Without question, the biggest key is to manage their offense,” Cathcart said. "Because we’re not going to stop their run game, their running back and their quarterback, but we’ve got to make sure they don’t keep the ball away from us and give up as few points as we can.”
LONG ROAD TRIP, LOGISTICS, FOCUS, MANAGING THE GAME
“Just managing the travel and the Thanksgiving week for us is huge,” Cathcart said. “Getting on the bus and being able to handle ourselves. Being able to deal with being focused on it being a mission and deal with logistics and all that stuff and kids being prepared to play when they get there in a hostile environment. We also need to manage their run game and being able to do what we do on offense. Being able to read them, pitch it and, ultimately, it’ll come down, in this case, to two teams that are used to letting turnovers and takeaways feed their offense. Whichever one does a better job of not letting that happen is probably the one that advances to the next round.
TURNOVERS. YES, BOTH CAN FORCE THEM
What’s crazy about this matchup is the forced turnover stats are almost identical.
Crisp County has grabbed 13 interceptions and recovered 7 fumbles this season. Jefferson has picked off its opponents 12 times this year while falling on 7 fumbles.
“It’s remarkable that these two teams not only do a great job of taking care of the football but do a great job of creating turnovers as well,” Cathcart said.
2018 INJURIES MADE THE TEAM STRONGER
The march into the Elite 8 is a culmination of the Dragons putting themselves back together after an early exit from the 2018 playoffs.
Yes, last season's injuries have been talked about ad nauseam, but it’s certainly worth reminiscing about right now.
The Dragons injury situation last season forced younger players to step in and fill the gaps, and those players earned experience they might have not gotten otherwise. It’s not a place any coach or team wants to be in but, for Cathcart and his staff, those injuries helped the program build depth and, as a byproduct, made the program stronger as a whole.
“You look at the guys that overcame and they’ve been the nucleus,” Cathcart said. “It gave us a lot of experience at positions that ordinarily they wouldn’t have gotten experience. But it’s certainly great to have your home run hitters back in the lineup.”
A UNIQUE TEAM
“It’s just a unique team,” Cathcart said. “We’re blessed with incredible senior leadership, but we’re also blessed with good leadership through the other grades. It’s just such a fun group to be around and spend time with. I’m just anxious to see how they’re able to finish because everything they’ve done in their careers has been second to now. We’re excited to have the opportunity to play an extremely talented Crisp team.”
THEY PLAY TOGETHER
“It’s one of those things where you feel like as long as the bus gets there, our kids have the fight, heart and togetherness, that the Dragons have a chance. We don’t back down from anybody and certainly, Crisp, we’ve got great respect for, but we’re awfully excited to be practicing Thanksgiving to have the opportunity, if we were fortunate to win, we would be playing at home next week with a chance to go to the championship.”
THE LEADERSHIP OF COLBY CLARK
“He’s been a leader since his freshman year,” Cathcart said. “Everyone certainly responds to him and follows his lead. He’s such a physically tough guy and works so hard in the weight room. He just leads so well by example. As long as he has his hand on the football, good things happen for the Dragons.”