Offense hasn’t been easy to come by for the Benjamin Russell football team.
Sandwiched between two big offensive onslaughts were four games where the Wildcats scored a total of just 38 points. They were shut out once during that stretch and all but one resulted in losses.
But what has kept Benjamin Russell competitive in every game this year is its dominating defense.
The Wildcats are averaging just 15.5 points against per game and they’ve held all but two opponents to 12 points or less. They’ve posted one shutout and have given up only 15 total points in the last two games.
“They’re playing with a lot more consistency,” BRHS coach Kevin Smith said.
And the Wildcats have done all that in the face of a lot of adversity.
John Fussell took over as the team’s defensive coordinator just a few weeks before the season and he proceeded to instill a new defensive formation. The Wildcats are now running a 3-3 stack. In addition to having Fussell come in as a newcomer, Benjamin Russell also suffered quite a few injuries.
“Last week going into Chilton County, we were down three original starters on defense,” Smith said.
The biggest loss came before the season ever started when returning starting inside linebacker Lane Rigby broke his leg during practice. But there have been several who have stepped in the face of those injuries and the Wildcats have never missed a beat.
“Part of it I credit to the kids’ mentality and their perseverance,” Smith said. “One other thing that we haven’t done in the past is the way coach Fussell has installed this defense, it lends itself to development from younger players. The ‘quote-unquote backups’ are getting as many reps, so they know what to do. When they know what to do, they play faster.”
There have been several standouts for the defense. Anthony Journey has come on strong at linebacker and Brett Pitts continues to be a standout regardless of where he’s playing. Ty Brown has come up big at cornerback and the secondary looks like a whole new team since the loss to Clay Central.
But one surprise in particular has come from Onaje Brooks at defensive end. Between him and Pokey Norris at nose guard, the Wildcats have a wall up front.
“Onaje has always had it in him,” Smith said. “But from 10th grade to 11th grade (which he’s in now, we go from being boys to being men. He also looks at Pokey. He knows that they are very close in their game and he tries to emulate Pokey. The thing that I like that Pokey gives Onaje is that motor. It’s almost like, ‘I’ll meet you at the ball; let’s see who gets there first.’”
While everyone expected Benjamin Russell’s front to be as aggressive and dominating as it typically is, a big question mark came in the secondary. Especially after the Clay Central loss, fans didn’t know what to make of the secondary. But it’s almost like the defensive backs knew they didn’t play to their potential that game and they weren’t going to let that happen again.
“Everybody looks back at the Clay (Central) game and that’s not the same secondary we are now,” Smith said.
Za Stowes stepped into a defensive role last week and did well and Gavin Edwards continues to grow each and every week. Dontarious Thomas, who is just a sophomore, has also come on strong.
“He’s our young pup and he’s gone through some growing pains,” Smith said. “He’s as quick as anybody in the secondary. His size hurts him sometimes but he’s been amazing that he doesn’t let things shake him up. He’s got that true classic defensive back mentality.”
Benjamin Russell can’t let the foot off the gas now; in fact, it might need to hit it a little harder as it’s set to face two tough offensive opponents in Opelika and Wetumpka in back-to-back Class 6A Region 3 matchups. The Wildcats will need to slow those two teams if it hopes to get back in the driver’s seat of making a playoff push this year.