It was a long time coming, but Chris Young is now a head coach, and his winning percentage will never be better than it is right now after Friday night’s 42-3 shellacking of the Southside Mavericks by his 2020 Bulldogs. On Saturday Young talked about the season-opening victory and looked ahead to week two against Fort Smith Northside.
“It was an exciting night for myself, but I was really just excited for the kids,” he said. “They’ve worked so hard, and I was really happy to see them play so well. They’ve gone through a lot to be able to play during these Covid times, and they’ve had to give up a lot and miss out on a lot. For a Friday night, to watch them out there having fun and not having to worry about anything else, that was special to me.
“For the first time in a long time, my boys were able to be boys,” he continued. “They weren’t worried about Covid, or social distancing, or masks, or getting sick. They were just out there having fun and playing football, and I think the same was true with the coaching staff. They were able to be out there and relax and [weren’t thinking] about anything but football.”
That’s not to say that the Covid nightmare completely disappeared from their thoughts, explained the coach. “I thought our kids did a great job of spacing and spreading out and doing all the things we’ve talked about, which enabled us to focus [more] on football. If they weren’t playing, they had their masks on. Obviously, if they had their helmets on, they weren’t wearing masks.
“We spent some time last week practicing spreading out,” said Young. “We had some cones set out, and I hate to have young men who work so hard in practice all week to have to stand [behind] a cone during the game for three hours. But it beats the alternative of not being able to take them [on the bus] or being able to play them. So, we’re very appreciative of how those guys handled themselves and the things we asked them to do.”
As for the game itself, Young had a lot of good things to say while also recognizing the need for continued improvement. He started by praising the offense led by senior quarterback L.D. Richmond, who last played the position as a freshman for the Junior Bulldogs.
“We were very pleased offensively,” said Young. “Coach [Zach] Watson and the rest of the offensive staff really had our kids prepared. [L.D.] played outstanding in his first game at quarterback in three years. He made good decisions and took care of himself. He got down and slid when he did run the ball. He didn’t force stuff.”
The coach also applauded his team’s bevy of receivers, one of the Bulldogs’ strengths this season. “Our receivers just made play after play after play,” he said. “Whether it was making a [defender] miss, or blocking on the edge, or going up and catching a touchdown on a jump ball. I was just really proud of how our guys played.”
Through the air, Richmond was very efficient, completing 22 of 32 passing attempts (69%) for 215 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He also had no shortage of receivers with five different Bulldogs catching at least two passes, starting with Hunter Wilkinson (2/8 yards) before leaving the game.
Senior speedster Caden Brown led the GHS receivers with nine grabs for 70 yards, while junior Luke Brewer had four receptions for 61 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Peyton Carter had four catches for 46 yards and senior Jase Strozier snared three passes for 30 yards. Greenwood totaled 342 yards on offense and converted on eight of 11 third down opportunities.
One of the things that didn’t go as planned Friday was depletion of the running backs corp. “Our top three running backs were all out, and [senior] Ty Moose came in, and I thought he played unbelievable. I had no idea he was going to play that early this year, but he did an outstanding [job],” said Young.
The Bulldogs rushed for 127 yards on 26 carries for an average of 4.9 yards per carry. Moose led the way with 38 yards on nine touches after Wilkinson (3/10 yards) left the game in the first quarter. Richmond was next with 34 yards on six carries. Junior Brennon Gregory added 21 yards on five attempts, and backup QB Hunter Houston also ran once for 16 yards. Junior Gabe Belin added eight yards on two carries, but left the game in the second half with an undisclosed injury.
“We lost [senior running back] Hunter [Wilkinson] early in the game, and we look forward to getting him back,” said Young. “He’s obviously a big part of our offense. But the next guy came in and got the job done. I’m just really proud of our offensive staff. Our coaches had their kids prepared.” Wilkinson was expected to see limited action anyway, even before suffering a minor injury in the early going. The coach then turned his attention to improvement on the offensive line.
He was not happy with the O-line play during the scrimmage at Fayetteville two weeks earlier. But that perception changed after their performance against Southside. “I thought our offensive line was outstanding. We did not give up a sack and Southside had a great defensive front with a great middle linebacker, but we blocked those guys up front all night long,” said Young.
“I think Coach [Austin] Moreton, our new offensive line coach, took that personally,” referring to their poor execution against Fayetteville. “[Against Southside] they kept our quarterback off the ground and clean all night, [and] they opened up some nice holes for our [running] backs. We were very happy with [them],” said the coach.
Turning his attention to the defense, Young offered his highest words of approval. “We had some good things happen last night, but I think the way our defense responded three times when we fumbled a punt – right after they stop somebody, they’ve got to come right back on the field – we didn’t hear kids complaining or pointing fingers. We just saw kids going out there to get their jobs done. That’s important for a football team, to have each other’s back. Because things are going to go wrong, and when they did, our defense said, ‘Hey, we gotcha,’ and they took care of their teammates. That’s a testament to Coach [Jason] Gill and his staff. I was really proud of the defense.
“Southside was zero percent on third downs,” said Young. “One hundred percent of the time on third downs we stopped them. We did not give up many first downs or yards at all. That’s tough enough when you don’t turn the ball over, but when you put three punts on the ground, it’s even more impressive.
“It was just a dominant performance for the defense. I thought we put pressure on [Southside], handled the run, and covered up [their receivers]. Certainly, there are plenty of things we can correct, and that’s what we’re doing up here today, fixing the mistakes we did make. But for the first game it was very impressive how all of our kids performed.”
Senior defensive back Tatum Sadler led the team with four solo tackles and two assisted ones. Senior linebacker Connor Marvin led his teammates with six assisted stops in addition to his interception return for a touchdown. Junior defensive back Colt Owenby had five assisted tackles, followed by defensive lineman Tyler Crossno, also a junior, with four assists.
Senior nose guard Ty Cowen also had four assisted stops, as did fellow lineman Bo Asher, also a senior who added 1½ tackles for lost yardage. Four more Bulldogs’ defenders tied with three assists, including linebackers Jordan Hanna, Bryce Pettigrew, Parker Gill, and defensive back Hayden Wells. Hanna, Pettigrew, and Wells are all seniors, while Gill is a junior.
Young also revealed that recent changes in personnel have shored up the defensive secondary that was picked on by the Fayetteville Purple Dogs. “We moved some guys around that would give us the best chance to be successful on defense.” Two defensive backs were also out with minor injuries for the scrimmage, but were back for the season opener.
Asked about individual performances, Young was quick to point to senior Caden Brown. “Caden started the game with the kickoff return, running one back, [and] it won the game for us. It changed the whole complexion of [that] Friday night. It took all the pressure away [from us], and put a whole lot more pressure on [Southside]. Without a doubt it was the play of the game. He also had [nine] catches and had a big night for us. He’s a speedster and can do some things with his speed.
“Defensively, I thought as a unit they played very well. [But] Connor Marvin had the pick six that was huge right before the half and got the clock rolling for us. He did a great job of staying with the ball. The young man made a great play, not only the pick, but a great return. Our defensive guys did a great job blocking for him, and not blocking behind the ball. Essentially, the defense outscored Southside 7-3 [all by] themselves. When you do that, good things are going to happen,” said Young.
As for Southside’s 0-2 start, the GHS Top Dog was confident the Mavericks will turn things around. “They’ve got some good football players over there, and I think that staff will get them lined up and put in the right place where they can have some success this year. We got them early in the year and they were trying to play some guys both ways, and we were able to make some first downs and get them tired, and I think that helped [us] as well.”
Young also talked about his team’s trouble fielding punts Friday night. After making a couple of nice plays early, including a courageous fair catch at midfield and a 35-yard return that set up a short GHS touchdown drive, Jayden Jasna muffed three punt receptions that led to turnovers. Fortunately, the Mavs only got three points from those gifts.
“[Jayden] is just a kid trying to make a play,” said his coach. “I have zero concerns with Jayden Jasna returning punts. He’ll be as good [as anyone] in our league returning punts, but we’ll practice and give him a lot of reps. He’s going to be a special football player for us this year. He had great success last year returning punts.
“We can improve in all areas of the game,” offered Young. “I told our coaches, ‘Things aren’t ever as good as you think they are, or as bad as you think they are’, and right now we’ve got to be careful not to spend time patting ourselves on our backs. There’s plenty of stuff that we can correct to make us a better football team.
“Obviously, we have the challenge of playing Northside this week,” continued Young. “Their quarterback is as good of an athlete as there is in the state of Arkansas,” referring to senior Dreyden Norwood, a Texas A&M commit. “Offensively, they’ve got several great athletes that can go 80 [yards] on you any play, [including] their quarterback, whether running or throwing, and they’ve got a couple good running backs.
“Defensively, those guys are very well coached. They are very sound. Coach Curry, their defensive coordinator, does a very good job. So we’re going to have to get ready. We’re going to have to win the battle up front and play well. They are young and talented, but have a lot of returnees from last year. It will be a challenge, but one we are ready for.
“We’re going to have a great film session on Sunday and cover the mistakes we made with our kids, and then Monday we’re going to have a great practice and get ready for Northside,” said the new GHS head coach.
Looking forward to the first of three consecutive home games starting with the Grizzlies next Friday, the coach added, “We missed the rest of our team last night – the cheerleaders, the dance team, the band, and the student section – we feel like they are part of our football team. They help us win. They are very important to what we do. We’ll be excited to have those guys here on Friday night to help us be our best.”
Asked about injuries, Young said, “We expect we will be at full strength. [But] if we have somebody go out, the next man will step up. We’ve got guys that practice hard every day for that opportunity, and when it presents itself, they take advantage of it.”
On the performance of the kicking game, still missing punter Noah Jantzen, out with a groin injury, Young said, “Ben [Moy] is our punter now and we’re very happy with him. I think [senior kicker] Luis Morales had a great night with two touchbacks, and our kicking game was very good as far as PATs, kickoffs, and punts.”
Young’s comments indicate his general pleasure with how his Bulldogs performed in their opening game of the 2020 season, which also happened to be his first game as a head coach. It was a dominant performance that offers early confirmation that nothing has really changed in the GHS football program after the departure of Coach Jones. The Bulldogs are in very capable hands with Chris Young and his new look staff of assistant coaches. They may not remain unbeaten this season, but they are off to a great start. Go Bulldogs!