Hawk Headhunters

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Xavier Benson leads the team onto the field.

Linebackers’ rule:

smart, hard, fast

The past is but prologue, Shakespeare said, and the current crop of Pleasant Grove linebackers seem to be the proof of that, looking every bit the avatar of a defense that led PG to its first playoff berth nearly 30 years ago —  “Hawk Headhunters.”

Inside linebackers Caleb Hemphill and Caleb Porchia, and outside linebackers Jacob Barbour, Tyler Allen and Xavier Benson operate with the cunning and ferocity of a pack of wolves. Before the ball is snapped, they analyze the offense for keys. In the split second after the ball is snapped, the outside ‘backers move to seal the edge and funnel the play inside to the two Calebs, who have combined for more than 250 tackles this year.

Or they drop back in coverage, or they blitz, or they do something else. Whatever it is, the do it as a unit. It all happens in the blink of an eye, and it is violent and decisive.

Caleb Porchia

“From side-to-side, this is the best group of linebackers I’ve coached,” said Blake Worley, their position coach. “There are no weak links. Every one of them is a player. They work well together, they play very hard, and they’re unselfish. They’re good athletes, they’re smart and they’re courageous.”

 

Trust and heart

Talk to them as a group, and the words that come up constantly are trust and heart.

Xavier Benson

“Our defense is basically built on trust,” said Benson, a 6-foot-3 senior who has committed to play for Texas Tech next year. “We know that if we do our job that the other guy is going to be there.”

“You know you can trust anyone to make a play,” said Barbour. “You can’t mess up when everyone is there, and we know the other guy is always going to be there.”

Not only will someone be there to make the play, it’s a certainty that he will make it enthusiasm.

“We play with a lot of heart,” said Hemphill. “You have to be twice as physical as anybody out there.”

Jacob Barbour

An old coach once said the only thing he couldn’t coach was experience, and the Hawk linebacking corps has plenty of it. Hemphill is a junior. The other four are seniors and all buy Barbour have been playing together since middle school.

Though the defense has been solid since the opening kickoff, it really found its identity when it stopped Gilmer late to preserve a win over the Buckeyes in their own backyard.

“That kind of flipped the switch,” said Porchia, the team leader with 162 tackles. “We play with a lot of confidence because we know we can overcome adversity like crazy.”

Tyler Allen

Backing a great line

It also helps to play behind a senior-dominated line that nearly always controls the line of scrimmage and makes a ton of tackles, too.

“It’s so annoying to when the defensive line gets pushed back to you,” said Benson. “Our line is always pushing the other guys back.”

That allows the linebackers to follow their position coach’s first commandment: Play downhill, and play fast.

“Our coaches put is in the right position to make the plays,” Benson said. “Certain plays can make or break a game, and our coaches put is in position to make those plays.”

Caleb Hemphill

Making an acrobatic play or two each game has become a Benson trademark, whether it’s leaping six feet to smother a quarterback, soaring high in the air to break up a pass, or snaring a pass on offense and leaving the defense in his wake.

“The coaches are good at creating a mismatch situation for me,” he said with his ever-present smile.

Head coach Josh Gibson knows how important his linebackers are.

No. 8, Caleb Hemphill

Hemphill, a converted safety, is 6-foot, 177 lbs. He has been in on 88 tackles and has six sacks and five quarterback hurries.

“Hemphill has flourished in the linebacker role this year,” Gibson said. “We had a great linebacker crew returning this year, but we needed one guy to step up at this position.  Caleb Hemphill is that guy.  He’s extremely smart and plays hard.  He will be a captain of our football team next year.  He will be a poster boy for the type of person we want in our program – a great human being who goes full tilt and leads by example.”

No. 5, Caleb Porchia

Porchia, who has two offers but has yet to commit to a college. He has 12 tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception and five quarterback pressures. He said one thing that makes his life easier this year is the luxury of playing one-way. Austin Toler nailed down the starting tight end job, letting Porchia do what he does best.

“Caleb Porchia is the best inside linebacker I’ve had the pleasure to coach.  He has great instincts to the football and makes a ton of plays,” Gibson said. “He’s one of the hardest hitters I’ve coached as well.  There is no doubt that Porchia will have a great college football career.  He’s a HUGE reason we are so successful on the defensive side of the ball.”

No. 42, Jacob Barbour

At 5-foot-9 and 165 lbs., Barbour doesn’t look like a linebacker, until he puts on the pads and steps out on the field. He’s murder on opposing quarterbacks, registering five sacks and eight pressures.

“Jacob moved into PG his sophomore year and we are thankful he did,” Gibson said. “Jacob is so coachable and will always be in the right spot to make plays.  Last year in the Arkansas High game, they had a chance to win the game on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.  They ran towards Jacob and he set the edge and made a play to help us win the game.  At that point, we knew he would be a special player.  He plays with his heart and goes full tilt.”

No. 6, Tyler Allen

Allen, 6-foot-1, 210 lbs., is another former safety who has moved into the middle.

“Tyler has been a leader of this group since middle school (before I got here). He’s a heart and soul guy and the kids look up to him because of his passion for the game,” Gibson said. “He’s played up on the varsity since his sophomore year.  Tyler is a physical specimen.  He’s tall, big and strong.  He’s a playmaker on special teams and defense.  Tyler has always been an emotional leader for this group. “

No. 3, Xavier Benson

In the locker room, on the sideline, and especially on the field, Benson sets the tone for this team, which plays hard, plays with emotion, but also plays loose – just like Benson, who has been in on 91 tackles and has broken up 18 passes.

“Xavier is one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached.  He can do it all.  One college coach told me, Xavier’s a freak and he will play on Sundays,” Gibson said. “He’s a playmaker on offense, defense, and special teams.  He’s played up on varsity since his 9th-grade year. We knew then we had something special with Xavier.

“No doubt, Xavier is a leader on this team.  He sets the tone in practice and at games.  I have so much belief in Xavier because of his work ethic.”

 

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A veteran journalist and educator, Bill Owney is a 1980 graduate of the University of Florida. Writing awards include APME honors for investigative reporting, the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Award for public service reporting and numerous awards for editorial, column and news writing. He served as publisher of the Atlanta Citizens Journal and Pittsburg Gazette when each paper won sweepstakes awards from the Texas Press and North and East Texas Press Associations. He spent 15 years as a public school teacher and is an adjunct professor of English at Texarkana College.