Benjamin Russell football vs Stanhope Elmore

Jake Arthur/ Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc. Benjamin Russell head coach Aubrey Blackwell at the football game between Benjamin Russell and Stanhope Elmore on Friday, Sept. 4, 2021. Stanhope Elmore won the game 42-20.

Benjamin Russell’s players set out with a top team goal when their new coaching staff arrived in town ahead of this season — to make the playoffs.

Three region games remain for the Wildcats. They must win all three to make it in. Pelham kicks off the must-win stretch this week.

“It’s our playoff run. That’s what our seniors set out to do and that’s been our goal, to find a way to get in the playoffs this year,” Benjamin Russell coach Aubrey Blackwell said. “So that’s that. This is our opportunity to get in. If we’re gonna reach that goal, we’ve gotta put this one together.”

The Panthers roll into the Charles E. Bailey Sportsplex with a bevy of weapons and a distinct option attack on offense and a 4-3 record, but regardless of how they stack up on paper, it’s do-or-die time for Benjamin Russell’s team Thursday.

Typically teams led by Pelham coach Tom Causey run a downhill, triple-option type of attack, Blackwell said, and while the triple option is very much a part of what the Panthers do this season, they’re spreading the ball out more than usual.

The Panthers can often line up in shotgun, motion a receiver and run an option play off that look, whether it’s their classic triple option or a veer option or a run-pass option.

They’re throwing the ball more than in years past too, Blackwell said.

“It’s probably the most spread offense I’ve seen out of a Tom Causey team, but it’s strictly because of the talent they have at quarterback and wide receiver. He’s just using the weapons that he has. It’s not a traditional triple option.”

It all centers around dynamic senior quarterback William Lankford.

The 6-foot-3 gunslinger presents a threat hurling the ball downfield as well as tucking it to run, forcing defenses to account for the keep on each of Pelham’s option looks.

“He’s a division 1 football player,” Blackwell said. “He’s gonna give somebody a really good quarterback, whoever takes a chance on him and gives him that opportunity. But he presents what you expect from a division 1 quarterback. He can run, he can throw. He’s multidimensional.”

He’s surrounded by talented pass catchers and versatility.

Junior wide receiver Darius Copeland plays a near-H-back role in the slot, motioning across the field to set up many of the Panthers’ option looks or quick-hitting runs to the outside. He’s dangerous in the screen game as well and was referred to as a “serious” vertical threat by Blackwell.

Junior wide receiver Trey Corkill stands 6-foot-3 and can win his fair share of 50/50 balls with a high point while also demonstrating the athleticism required to gain separation on defensive backs. He’s joined by junior wide receiver Kamari Hollis as another speedy outside threat at the position.

Senior tight end Christian Pritchett gets involved in a great many ways, often a third option in the RPO game. He can also split out as a receiver to attack defenses vertically and even run the ball from time to time.

“Overall, they have weapons at wide receiver, they have weapons at running back, quarterback and a big offensive line to go with it,” Blackwell said. “So we’re gonna have to play extremely well defensively and really do a good job of containing a very talented quarterback.”

Assignment football will be key for the Wildcats’ defense this week, Blackwell said. The unit is practicing against an offense without a football to ensure it learns to cover all three choices of a triple option or RPO play.

“Covering the triple option is always hard because you don’t see it very much anymore. It’s disciplined football, you’ve gotta know your role, gotta know what you’ve got to do and what you’ve got to do well. Gotta understand who’s got the dive, who’s got the quarterback and who’s got the pitch.”

Offensively, the main strength for the Wildcats is health.

For the first time this season all 11 starters on offense will be available to play, with offensive lineman Camron Vickers returning to his spot on the front five.

The Wildcats have produced primarily through the air this season, with sophomore quarterback Gabe Benton at 1,233 passing yards in just five games played, but establishing the ground game and controlling possession will be of paramount importance against Pelham’s lethal offense.

Benjamin Russell junior running back DeMarcus McNeal could be in for a heavy load. He’s rushed for 240 yards on 76 carries thus far this year.

“(Last game) at Smiths Station we ran the football well, had over 100 rushing yards as a team for the first time this year,” Blackwell said. “We’re starting to get better at running the football. We’re definitely gonna have to do that, because a key to this game is going to be keeping Pelham’s offense off the field, getting off the field on third downs defensively and us keeping the football.”

Benjamin Russell and Pelham kick off at 7 p.m. Thursday.

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