All shut-down, all the time
“Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose,” Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph once said. “Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat and go on to win again, someday you are going to be a champion.”
From the ashes of a crushing loss in Mesquite’s Memorial Stadium one year ago this week, the Pleasant Grove secondary has arisen to become a vital cog in one of the best defenses in Texas. In the age of popcorn-machine offenses, dozens of good teams still in the playoffs surrender more than 20 points a game. PG averages 15.5, and TD passes are hard to come by against this crew.
Cornerbacks Cameron Wells, Tyler Kelly and Aaron Harmon, and safeties Ryan Pickleman and Chauncey Martin took it personally when Celina ended PG’s season with a 23-19 win. The Bobcats dominated early, but PG came back with 13 points in the fourth quarter to pull within four with 5:25 left on the clock.
Thanks in part to a questionable pass interference penalty, Celina ran out the clock.
With clenched jaws
“We made up our minds that we weren’t going to
let that happen again,” said Pickleman.
“It all started in the offseason, in January and February,” said Wells. “We
wanted to do 7-on-7.”
Doing battle in the spring and summer in a passing-only competition is an odd thing to wish for from a run-first, Wing-T outfit, but the young men knew that’s where they needed to hone the skills needed to shut down today’s spread offenses.
They started showing up for unsupervised workouts 60-90 minutes before school three times a week. Soon, quarterbacks and
receivers joined the party.
“It was like an epidemic. Everybody started coming,” Martin said. “I never looked at it as a job. I just loved being there. I don’t think anybody works as hard as us in the off-season.”
As time wore on, the boys from Pleasant Grove got pretty good at throwing,
catching and defending the pass. The Hawks went 17-1 in 7-on-7, the lone loss coming in the state semifinals.
Secondary of brothers
The benefits of competing against the best come to fruition every week. Defensive coordinator Brandon Easterly said he has the freedom to commit the front seven to stopping the run because the guys in the back can blanket the other team’s receivers with single coverage.
“Every week, I ask Andy Allen (who coaches safeties) and Dwight McCowan (cornerbacks coach) if we can go with single coverage,” Easterly said. Allen and McCowan have developed a habit of saying yes.
That’s a lot of faith to put in high school athletes because playing in the secondary requires speed, toughness, mental agility and consummate teamwork. It’s like playing multiplayer, four-dimensional chess at a dead run.
“They’re some of the smartest, most football-savvy players on the field,” Easterly said. “They have a lot on their plate. They must account for the tight ends, the receivers, the running backs and the sniffer (H-back).
“They do everything,” he said. “They have to call out everything.”
It’s all situational. Defending the pass on third-and-25 with a 21-point lead is different from defending on third-and-four in a close game. Knowing what to do and where to be begins in the film room.
“We have to know the entire formation,” said Pickleman. “We like to know the other team’s route patterns.”
“We’re communicating constantly,” said Kelly. “We have to know who is where and what the down-and-distance is.”
An abiding trust envelops the players’ relationships on and off the field. It extends to their coaches.
“We know what to expect and what their expectations of us are,” Martin said. “They’re like dads to us.”
Will to win
Talent and preparation are critical, but football is played with passion. Kelly epitomized that with a key play to hold Tatum at bay in a bi-district tilt last week.
Down 21-7, Tatum looked like it might make a game of it midway through the third period. On third-and-ten on their 23, the Eagles ran a halfback pass that went to tight end Jimmie Jakubowski, who was all alone, a good eight yards behind the secondary.
The 245-lb. tight end turned and shot down the right sideline toward the end zone. Kelly refused to give up on the play. While the big senior sprinted 50 yards down the right sideline, Kelly blazed a 70-yard streak from the left flat.
“My receiver wasn’t doing anything, so I started to move in that direction, and then I saw the ball in the air and I had to go get him,” Kelly said. “I didn’t know if I could catch him or not, but I knew if I didn’t make the effort, practice with Coach Easterly was going to be tough.”
As the two started to converge near the Hawk 10, Kelly realized he had another problem: He was giving up 110 pounds to a guy who had a full head of steam.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get him down going for the legs,” he said.
Like a mongoose taking down a boa constrictor, Kelly went for the neck. He held fast and used the momentum of his body to sling Jakubowsk out of bounds at the 8.
That lit the fuse. Four plays later, the Hawks took over on downs. Tatum never crossed midfield again.
It was typical play from Kelly, a 5-foot-6, 135-lb. senior cornerback, the son of Monica and Donnie Kelly.
“That’s who he is. Tyler is a combination of dynamite in a small package and Mighty Mouse,” said coach Josh Gibson. “People look at his stature and think he can’t cover, but he’s tenacious. He plays hard. He’s very athletic, and he’s very coachable. He plays with heart. He’s a warrior.”
Harmon, a 6-foot-2 senior corner, is the son of Chris Harmon and Kellie McDonald. His brother Ben is the starting quarterback and his other brother, Luke, is a tailback and linebacker. Aaron has caught five passes, two of them for scores, from Ben.
“Aaron is tall and extremely athletic and one of the most versatile athletes in our program. He went to area last year as a distance runner and high jumper,” Gibson said. “He didn’t play the previous two years, concentrating on basketball and track. We were happy to get him back.”
Senior Cameron Wells, a six-footer who weighs 170 lbs., lines up at cornerback. He is the son of Marnda and Stacy Wells.
“I think Cam is the best cornerback in our district,” said Gibson. “He’s one of the best leaders on our football team. He’s a hard worker, vocal and real key to team chemistry. He treats everybody in the locker room like they matter.”
Pickleman, a junior playing his second year of varsity ball, has emerged as a leader. The son of Amy and Jason Pickleman, he has been out with a high ankle sprain the past few weeks but may see action this week in the area matchup against Aubrey.
“He’s one of the best safeties in the district,” said Gibson. “He is extremely fast. He tackles very well and plays extremely hard. He’s one of the smartest kids in his class. I expect him to be one of our captains next year.”
Chauncey Martin, the other safety, rarely comes off the field. On offense, he has rushed for 610 yards and eight TDs. He is the team’s leading kick returner. On defense, he’s a menace.
“Chauncy is going to have a chance to play at the Division I level. He’s the best safety I ever coached,” said Gibson, a pretty fair college DB in his day. “He’s a playmaker, extremely physical, an excellent tackler and has great ball skills.”
Gibson, who gets plenty of credit for shaping PG into a state power, said much of that goes to his hard-working players. Case in point, the secondary.
“Their goal early on was to win state. They knew if they wanted to do that, they would have to start early,” he said.
Coaches can’t coach off-season practices or 7-on-7 seasons. All they can do is facilitate those things by opening the fieldhouse at the crack of dawn.
“Quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs – they all did it,” Gibson said. “It’s amazing for a Wing-T team how well we did in 7-on-7.”