For Hawk ball carriers, receivers
it’s all about execution, attitude
They’re the stars, the hot dogs, the guys who carry, throw or catch the ball; their names are heard on the loudspeakers, and when things go well – The. Crowd. Goes. Wild.
On most football teams, that comes down to two or three players – a quarterback, running back and, if lucky, a star receiver; but at Pleasant Grove, it’s a parade of big, talented guys with their egos in check. In coach Josh Gibson’s Wing-T offense, the ball doesn’t go to just anybody, it goes to anyone who isn’t a lineman.
On the snap, backs and receivers sprint at full speed in a multitude of directions. Some are decoys, some are heading downfield to block, but only one will head for the hole opened by the line.
There is no featured back, and the quarterback is not called on to make spectacular plays, just sound
ones. That everybody will touch the ball at some point, often with devastating effect, forces defenses to keep an eye on the whole crew.
It seems to be working. PG averages 425 yards and 44 points a game.
Sophomore quarterback Ben Harmon dishes the ball to fullback TJ Cole, tailback Luke Harmon (one of three Harmon brothers who play major roles), wingback Josh Roberts, tailback Bruce Garrett, and tailback Chauncey Martin. Between them, the group has 3,426 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns.
When defenses jam the line trying to slow down that rushing onslaught, Harmon has been known to
drop back and zing the ball to Carson Cox, who has snared 21 passes for 626 yards and 10 TDs. Tight end Xavier Benson and Cole have added eight more scores through the air.
The skill players will be the first to tell you this isn’t so much about skill, as it is about execution, attitude, and toughness.
The Wing-T works, offensive coordinator and running backs coach Justin Gibson has drilled into his players’ heads, because of misdirection and the confusion it causes.
“It’s all about the fakes, coach Justin always tells us,” said Garrett. “Everyone is going to get the ball. You can’t be selfish at all.”
It’s also about playing behind a group of veteran linemen, who often block things up so well that first contact comes well beyond the line of scrimmage.
“They’re seniors. They play together,” said Harmon, a soft-spoken sophomore who prefers to let the upperclassmen do the talking.
When not carrying out fakes, the skill players block. Hard. It is something in which they take great pride.
“We just feel that if we keep smashing a team in the mouth, sooner or later, they’ll give up,” said Garrett. No one is going to play harder than us.”
“It’s a mindset,” said Martin. “With the amount of work we do, we feel like it should pay off.”
That toughness extends to running the ball. Cole, the team’s leading rusher and the one who usually gets the call on short-yardage situations, refuses to go down easily.
“Don’t let one person get you down, that’s our rule,” Cole said.
Band of skillful brothers
Though every football team works in units – linemen, secondary, linebackers – a constant for each at PG is camaraderie. Most of the skill players have been competing together since middle school, or even earlier in youth sports. Comfort, confidence and quick humor mark their conversations.
The linemen like to hunt together. The backs and receivers have their own tradition. Before the game, they pick up Subway sandwiches. Afterwards, they head to Cox’ house for a meal and some spirited Madden Football.
The group tightened their bonds over the spring and summer in 7-on-7 competition, when they went undefeated until a state semifinal loss.
This week’s third-round showdown with Celina, the last team to beat PG and the only loss the Hawks have suffered in 18 games, seems to give the skill players all the motivation they need. The four-point loss was one the Hawks believe never should have happened.
They believe even more firmly that it won’t happen again, that this will be the first Hawk team to reach the regional semifinals, which is a state quarterfinal.
“I was looking at that game on film, and no one on our team even looks the same,” Cox said. Everyone is bigger, everyone seems to have more muscle.”
“We’re better at each position,” said Martin, “We have something to prove. Pleasant Grove has never beaten Celina, but we feel we’re the team to do that.”
Hall of Fame coach Johnny Toombs, an old Wing-T coach who founded the PG program, likes to talk about how important it is for running teams to be “efficient” in the passing game. Coach Toombs, meet Ben Harmon.
The 6-foot-1, 180-lb. sophomore has hit on 62 of 99 pass – 63 percent – for 1,489 yards and 23 TDs against just six interceptions. A first-year starter, his ascendency to the position allowed Cole to move over to running back, where he has blossomed.
“Ben Harmon is one of the best young quarterbacks that I’ve had an opportunity to coach,” said head coach Josh Gibson. “He has so much confidence for a youngster, the intangibles are all there and his passing game and decision making are a big reason for our success this year.”
Cox, headed to play baseball at the University of Tulsa, this year has emerged as one of the best wideouts in Texas. He averages 29.8 yards per catch.
“Carson Cox has been one of the best leaders on this team for four years,” Gibson said. “He’s a freakish athlete that could play Division 1 baseball or football, and it is uncommon for many to get a chance at just one.
“The thing I love most about Carson is his temperament. He’s a winner who everyone on this team enjoys being around. He makes everyone better, coaches and players.”
Just about the time a defense thinks it has PG’s offense figured out, here comes Josh Roberts around the corner, shooting past or running over someone. A 6-foot, 188-lb. senior, Roberts has made the most of his 47 carries, racking up 313 yards and five touchdowns.
“Josh Roberts runs hard and physical on the edge,” Gibson said. “His specialty is the jet sweep and we run a lot of it. Josh is a heart and soul kiddo. You get one gear with him, full tilt. He’s made a lot of big runs for us the last two years.
A standout on offense, in the defensive backfield and on kick returns, Martin at times seems to be everywhere on this team. A 5-foot-11, 184-lb. senior, Martin has run for 767 yards and 10 touchdowns on 72 carries. He averages 10.7 yards per carry.
On defense, Martin has been in on 45 tackles and has two interceptions.
“Chauncey Martin is the playmaker,” Gibson said. “He can do it all: offense, defense, and special teams. As a running back, he has great balance, strength, and speed. He’s one of the best backs in East Texas, and we’ve had more than eight college coaches in this week alone to look at him. He’s a special player.”
Cole, a 5-foot-11, 186-lb. senior is the workhorse in the backfield. He has 1,319 yards and 18 touchdowns on 170 carries. He has caught 14 passes for 267 yards and five more TDs.
“TJ Cole is a dude! He made the move from quarterback to running back and it has paid off,” Gibson said. “TJ will end up with several collegiate offers. I had a college coach tell me today, he is the No. 1 running back on their board. TJ is so athletic, he could play three different positions in college. His hands are phenomenal, he runs with great power and his vision is unreal.”
“Duece!” has become a favorite thing for the Hawk crowd to yell when they see No. 2, Bruce Garrett racing around or slashing through the defense. A 5-foot-10, 178-lb. sophomore, Garrett averages nearly 10 yards a carry, piling up 722 yards and seven touchdowns on 74 carries.
“Bruce Garrett is a phenomenal running back. I compare him to Rex Burkhead all the time,” said coach Gibson. “Justin and I had an opportunity to coach Rex at Plano Senior High. Rex was a four-year starter at Nebraska and is playing for the New England Patriots. Bruce runs with so much speed, power and balance. You will see him playing on Saturdays in the future. Another good thing about Bruce, we get him for two more years.”
Few players better embody the spirit of Hawk football than Luke Harmon, who may not have the stature of a big-time star, but certainly has the heart. When somebody needs to stick his head in the pile and do a job, the 5-foot-9, 176-lb. senior gets the call. He has carried the ball 30 times for 152 yards and two touchdowns.
“Luke Harmon is an extremely versatile athlete,” Gibson said. “We were so excited to get him back in the football program (he was with us as a 9th grader). He’s a very good linebacker but plays behind Xavier Benson. On offense, his strengths are his hands and route running ability. He’s a great slot. He runs with good balance and vision too. Chauncey plays defense full-time, and we have so much confidence in Luke’s ability that we play him over 50 percent of the time at running back.”