By Travis M. Smith | KBEC Sports
The Friday night lights have finally returned to the night sky over Stuart B. Lumpkins Stadium.
Those lights brought about a controlled scrimmage between 6A Waxahachie and 5A state-ranked Red Oak that featured several hundred fans, half a dozen touchdowns and one heck of a teaser for the upcoming football season.
The return to the gridiron was a welcomed one for both head coaches, too.
“I was talking to coach [Todd] Alexander, and they do a great job over there, but we were talking about the protocols and procedures,” said Red Oak head coach Michael Quintero after the scrimmage. “It’s almost like that is all you are focused on every day and then you come out here and get to line up against someone — it felt normal. It felt normal.”
Alexander echoed Quintero’s sentiment on the return to play, adding, “I am just excited for the kids. They put in a lot of work over the summer and, you know, not knowing if or when we were going to play; for them to get the opportunity to play a football game, even those it was a scrimmage, I’m just happy for the kids.”
As for the breakdown of Friday’s awfully physical and intense scrimmage between the neighboring towns, here goes nothing:
1. No. 9 Red Oak has the depth necessary for a long postseason run
Red Oak finished the 2019 season with an 11-2 overall record after bowing out to state champion Aledo in the third round of the 5A playoffs. The 11 wins were the most ever by the Hawks and the outright district championship was their first since 1982.
The season was a historical one of the Hawks, no doubt. But a lack of depth at key positions and a few mental mistakes ultimately cut their season short.
“What is finally starting to happen is that we have depth at most of the positions,” Quintero said. “And, with depth, comes competition. Our kids are competing every day and it is just making us that much better. That is what you want to see when you are building a program and coach [Chris] Ross did such a good job of getting us to this point, so we are just trying to keep building.”
Red Oak now has a plethora of talent, speed and size on both sides of the football — and especially at the skill positions.
“There is no doubt that [Red Oak] is a really good football team,” Alexander complimented. “They have talent everywhere and have seven Division-I kids who have offers on the table. I knew it was going to be tough and told the kids all week that they would be a really good football team. I think they have a chance to make a run, I really do.”
2. Waxahachie is vastly improved on defense and will be led by its secondary
Third-year varsity cornerback Preston Hodge (2019 first-team All-Ellis County) and the Indians defensive backs will be the strength of the Tribe’s defensive unit this fall, much as they have been since the 2018 season. Defensive back Quincy Johnson and linebackers Jh’Marques Head, Anthony Gallo, Johan Castillo and Jace Robinson will also significantly contribute to the Indians’ defensive efforts.
Friday was a bit of a tale of two halves for the Tribe, though. Alexander noted that the Hawks ripped through the Waxahachie defense during the first two scripted series, explaining that Red Oak “went fast and we haven’t seen a whole lot of that.”
“We have a sophomore safety back there and a sophomore at outside backer, and they learned real quick that the speed of the game does change,” the head coach added. “But, after those first two series that [Red Oak] scored, we were able to make adjustments and the kids made the adjustments and settled in. We didn’t game plan for them at all, but as the game went on, we began to gain a little confidence, and we feel good about the way it ended. We definitely have some work to do, but I feel confident about the way we ended it.”
The Indians finished 2-8 overall, 1-6 in the wildly stacked District 7-6A and allowed 43.0 points per game in 2019.
3. Quarterbacks? Yeah, the Hawks have two, but Ervin is still the man
The Hawks don’t just return Josh Ervin, the reigning 2019 All-Ellis County Most Valuable Player, but also boast a backup quarterback with 6A Division I state championship pedigree in Chris Parson
Ervin tossed 39 touchdowns on 147-of-208 passing (78%) for 2,826 yards and just five interceptions en route to the Hawks 5A Region II semifinal appearance. He also posted a perfect 142.6 passer rating, as well as school records in completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns.
For Ervin, the opportunity to return to game action is considered a blessing.
“I can’t put into words how great it feels, especially for our seniors,” the senior captain said. “After missing spring and a modified version of summer camp and a modified version of fall camp, it’s just a blessing to be out here playing the game that we love.”
He added, “I like what I saw today. We are a completely different team from last year to this year. We have improved in some areas and, part of those modified camps, this was the first time we’ve seen ourselves in some areas. Of course, there are some things that we have to clean up. But, I feel confident in our guys going into next week and playing our football brand.”
Red Oak also has the luxury of having Parson — a sophomore with multiple Division-I offers, on its roster. Parson transferred to Red Oak from Duncanville, where he started as a freshman in steed of the injured Ja’Quinden Jackson (University of Texas) in the 6A state championship game for the Panthers against Galena Park North Shore at AT&T Stadium in December. Jackson tore his ACL in the state semifinals. Parson went on to complete 6-of-his-10 passes for 100 yards and rushed for one touchdown in the Panthers’ 31-17 loss.
He attended Waxahachie schools through his eighth-grade year before transferring to Duncanville.
4. Quarterbacks? Waxahachie needs one of its two to take the reins and run
The Tribe rotated senior Casey Kelly and sophomore Roderick Hartsfield throughout the evening and both showed flashes while providing two completely different skill sets.
Kelly appeared to have a better understanding of — and handle on — the offense. Hartsfield provided a spark with his athleticism and ability to get outside of the pocket. Neither has much varsity experience to date.
“They both executed our offense well,” Alexander said. “They also both stood in the pocket against a very tough Red Oak front. Their patience in the pocket was good, especially with a couple of guys on the offensive line that this was the first varsity game they’d ever seen. They adjusted to the speed of the game and I was proud of both quarterbacks.”
Of course, whichever quarterback steps to the front of the line will benefit greatly from the depth of the Indians’ receiving corps.
BJ Hakwins, the reigning 2019 KBEC Sports Big School Player of the Year, returns to lead the group after he posted 91 receptions for 1,129 yards (12.4 YPC) and 14 touchdowns. He was named to the 7-6A first-team, as well.
The yardage total accounted for 48.4% of all Waxahachie receiving yards, while his 14 touchdowns were four more than the rest of the Indian receiving corps combined.
5. Both running games will see new faces
The running game is largely dependent on a team’s offensive line, which bodes well for the Red Oak Hawks. Waxahachie, on the other hand, will need its o-line to outplay and outperform its size against quite a few formidable District 11-6A defensive fronts.
The Indians will be undersized upfront in most district matchups, which is just an unfortunate truth. Waxahachie will look for Shawn Cherry, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound workhorse of a running back, to lead its ground efforts. And the back proved more than capable Friday night, as he busted through more than a few arm tackles for big gains.
As for the Hawks, they will look to use a committee of running backs to replace CJ Palmer’s 1,544 yards and 22 touchdowns on 146 carries posted in 2019. The graduate averaged 10.6 yards per carry, 118.8 yards per game and had eight games of 100 yards or more.
“I thought we ran the ball well,” Quintero said. “Our running backs are working on vision and finding running lanes, and those are things that the guys are working hard to do. We also missed a few blocks because of bad reads and calls upfront, and that is something that coach [Gilbert] Pedraza has harped on.
“[…] We have some great backs, and we are going to be able to run by committee this year. CJ left big shoes to fill, but I feel like we are going to be able to be dynamic this year, no matter who is running the ball.”
6. Red Oak’s new mindset will push the Hawks across the goal line
The Hawks return 14 starters and 36 lettermen from last year’s 5A Region II semifinal — and each one remembers the postseason heartbreak suffered at AT&T Stadium against Aled.
Quintero explained that there were a few “red flags” raised following the film breakdown of the Hawks’ 34-14 loss to the eventual-state champion Bearcats in 2019. He noted the coaches have talked to the team at length about those shortcomings during the offseason and quarantine period that began in March.
“We have been preaching the physical play,” Quintero said. “When we get down to the goal line, we need to score. When we have our backs against the goal line, we need to bend and not break. That has been the mentality of the kids. That’s been what we are breaking on when we are lifting weights. It’s what we are breaking on when we are changing rotations. It’s all about the physical play and I was proud of the kids for how hard they played tonight. I really saw some good things tonight.”
Friday night, the Hawks ended the scrimmage by lining up shoulder to shoulder in the end zone, further signify their newfound focus to “finish.”
“We have to finish. We have to finish. That has been our motto,” Quintero continued. “We always start fast, but we have to finish too. The kids have to be mature enough to know that when you are playing well that you don’t become content and you keep playing at the same level that you started. And that is something that high school kids don’t often understand. […] That is going to be something that we focus on during practice — we have to finish every route, every tackle and every run. It seems easy, but it is something that we have to work on.”
If you’re still reading, here’s the recap of the lone quarter played on Friday night:
Outside of an automatic first down penalty, Red Oak dominated the opening series of the timed quarter. Kelly was sacked once and hurried twice, leaving the QB more than a little jittery in the pocket.
Ervin and the Red Oak offense took over with 9:28 to play and quickly ripped off a 30-yard gain on an inside zone play into Indian territory.
Preston Hodge undercut the route of a Red Oak receiver for an interception on the ensuing snap. Ervin tossed just five interceptions to 39 touchdowns in 2019.
Hartsfield took over the offense’s reins on the next Waxahachie series and relied on the ground game to pick up a pair of first downs to near midfield. He then threw a dart to an Indian receiver on a slant on third-and-6 that would’ve picked up the first down, only to see it sail through his hands.
The Indian defense, again led by its secondary, promptly forced a three-and-out.
Kelly returned under center to guide the Tribe deep into the Hawks’ red zone. The momentum was shortlived, however, as he tossed an interception to 2 in the right corner of the end zone on third and short.
With the ball back in possession of the Hawks, Ervin completed a 35-yard bomb down the Red Oak sideline to move his offense to the Indians’ 10-yard line with 1:48 to play.
Two snaps later, the Tribe brought six in pressure to record a sack and push the Hawks back in the 18-yard line.
Ervin and the Hawks’ offense regrouped during a timeout and the senior quarterback tossed a beauty of a pass to a wide-open receiver LaKelsey Johnson in the left corner of the end zone. The extra-point attempt split the uprights and put the Hawks up 7-0 with under 30 seconds to play.
“To be honest, it started with the O-line,” explained Ervin of the touchdown play following the sack. “The play before, we let some pressure get through, but after the timeout, we regrouped and came together stronger. Without them, that [touchdown] wouldn’t have happened. It was a good play call and Kelsey did his job out there and, honestly, made me look good out there. The biggest thing for us this year as an offense is just to finish drives. We left a lot of points out there last year and we don’t want to do that this year.”
Waxahachie will open its regular season on the road against Copperas Cove with hopes of picking up its first win against the Bulldawgs in the program’s third attempt. The Indians last played the Bulldawgs in the bi-district round of the then-4A bi-district playoffs in 2006 and 2007, falling to the Robert Griffin III-led team by a single score in the waning minutes both times.
No. 9 Red Oak, meanwhile, kicks things off at home against No. 1 Ennis in a potential late-round 5A playoff preview.
“Next week is going to be awesome,” Quintero said. “Coach [Sam] Harrell and those guys do such a good job to carry on the Ennis tradition. It’s going to be a great measuring stick for us. If we want to make a run, we are going to have to play teams like Ennis. It’s going to be exciting.”
Both games are slated to kick-off at 7:30 p.m.
All photos by Travis M. Smith/KBEC Sports
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith