The Cleveland Raiders will get a taste of what Middle Tennessee has to offer as the 2-1 Wilson Central Wildcats venture down from Lebanon Friday evening.
“Wilson Central has had some success in many sports. Last year they were 8-2 in the [football] regular season, but got beat in the first round by Brentwood High,” Blue Raiders head coach Ron Crawford said. “I think our community and our school are hungry, we’ve just got a tough schedule consisting of nine playoff teams. We played a major private school and this will be our third 6A team. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but I like the way our guys are handling it.”
Thus far in the season, the tale of the (scouting) tapes looks very similar for the two teams.
While Cleveland’s season started off with a loss to McCallie, Wilson Central’s began with a loss to Hendersonville. Both teams are coming off of back-to-back victories going into Friday’s game.
The Raiders got their first district win under their belt last week, with a 49-7 thumping of McMinn County, which for the past two years had been undefeated in District 5-AAA play.
“I think we got on McMinn so quick that it really surprised them,” Crawford commented. “Anytime you can win a district game and beat the two-time district champion, the kids get excited about it.”
During the overwhelming victory, senior QB Austin Herink proved a force to be reckoned with.
Herink recorded seven touchdowns during the game, three passing and four that he ran in himself.
“Austin has been playing extremely well. He was 17 out of 29 passing — we had eight drops so he would’ve literally been 25 out of 29 passing. He had 80 rushing yards in that game,” Crawford said. “For the life of me I can’t understand why he’s not getting more interest from colleges. He’s a really good player, maybe as good as I’ve ever coached in 28 years.”
With this week’s newest AP Tennessee Prep polls, the Raiders retained their sixth place ranking.
“I hope it’s flattering to the kids that other people think that we’ve got a pretty good football team,” Crawford said. “Success has been so hard to come by around here recently and the people want us to do well so bad, I think that after two weeks we’ve gotten a lot of pats on the back. Our lesson is to maintain focus and pay attention to detail. I hope we have the leadership and maturity to understand that we need to worry about the Blue Raiders and try to improve this week. My biggest worry is taking a step backwards.”
Going into their game with the Wildcats, the Raiders only know what the scouting videos have shown them on the visiting team.
“They’re big and they have some speed. They’re a wing T and spread on offense, and a 4-3 team on defense. We think they will give us more man and press coverage than we’ve got in the past based on what we’ve seen on film,” Crawford explained. “When you face a wing T team it requires practice to be different. Your reads and keys are different on defense. I don’t think our kids or our coaches particularly enjoy preparing for a wing T team. We’ve got them and then Walker Valley down the road so we better get good at it.”
One thing that Coach Crawford is not looking forward to is the lack of depth at defensive end with both Kimsey Bell and Chris Ofori expected out for Friday’s game.
“There’s no doubt in my mind right now that Kimsey is our best defensive football player. He’s our most relentless, passionate player on defense, and somebody is going to have to step up and fill that role for us this week,” Crawford stated. “Tre Simpson got a lot of reps last week. He’s a junior who has played a lot of football for us on the offensive line. He’s going to have to step up and play big for us Friday night.”
Other than injury riddled defensive ends, Cleveland’s defense looks to be continuing to improve.
“On defensive back at this point it looks like Raekwon (Bunion) appears to be feeling better than he’s felt in a while,” Crawford said. “Two guys who have come through for us at corner are Tyler Davis and Michael Huff, who are both seniors. Obviously DJ does a great job but he’s a kick returner so we’ve got to have some rest for him.”
So far in the season, backup QB Austin Massey has been learning a new role as he is utilized on the defensive side of the line.
“Austin can be dynamic when he feels confident and sure of himself. We’ve got to utilize his athletic ability, and he has improved. He’s playing in a new spot, he’s been a quarterback but we’re really trying to use him on defense. He’s made some explosive plays in the last couple weeks whether it’s blitzing off the edge or pass coverage,” Crawford commented.
According to Crawford, guys like Darius Pillow, Jonathan Terrero and Jacob Gibson will have to have big games on Friday.
“I think our inside linebackers have improved from week to week. This will be a big week for them — they will be vital against Wilson Central’s running attack,” Crawford said.
For the coach, seeing the Raiders’ continued progress and improvements with their level of play is key.
“I think our execution has been good on offense. Defensively we’re still not as fundamentally sound in as many areas as I’d like to see, but we’re playing extremely hard and getting lots of kids running to the football,” Crawford stated. “We are playing with some enthusiasm and passion, and are creating some turnovers. Kicking game wise, I think our return game has been a weapon and dynamic for us. I’m pleased with the development with our punter and kicker, Zack Lee and Oscar Galvan.”
While Cleveland’s next district game will be the following week, Crawford knows his team needs to have all its focus on Wilson Central.
“I’m worried about this week, just from the standpoint that our guys don’t know who Wilson Central is or know anything about them. On the other side, Wilson Central doesn’t know anything about Cleveland, either. Their recent history is probably more successful than Cleveland’s,” Crawford said. “We have to take care of the task at hand. We’ve got a good football team coming in on Friday, and a big thing with our first Hall of Fame class being inducted at half time. We need to play well and let the people who are back visiting see a team that is prideful, is disciplined and plays hard.”