Benjamin Russell’s revamped football coaching staff and team doesn’t get an adjustment period this season.
The Wildcats open their campaign Friday, and on the docket to test the young squad is a team with multiple D-1 prospects in Huffman.
“We’re going to establish a lot of youth on this side of the ball, a lot of guys that haven’t played a lot of football,” Benjamin Russell head coach Aubrey Blackwell said of his offense. “It’s gonna be really important for us to just stay patient, they’re gonna blitz us a lot so we’re gonna have to do a really good job of communicating.”
Huffman finished with a 4-6 record in 2020, but four of those losses came by 12 points or less including a 3-0 defeat against Hewitt-Trussville, who went 9-3 last year, and a 35-34 overtime loss to Chelsea.
If Benjamin Russell hopes to beat the Vikings, Blackwell said, it will need to get Huffman senior running back Makhi Hughes to the ground consistently.
Hughes is a force out of the backfield, a physical, 195-pound downhill runner with college scholarship offers from Florida State, Kansas and Troy among several others.
“It’s not always easy to face the best running back you’ll see all year in the first game,” Blackwell said. “We’re just gonna have to grow up in a hurry and play fast. We’re gonna have to rally to the ball, that’s one thing we’ve talked about in our defensive meetings all week, is that we’ve got to be able to team tackle. It’s gonna be hard for one guy to get him on the ground.”
Tackling was the primary focus for Benjamin Russell’s defense in fall camp because of the threat Hughes presents. The Wildcats return just three starters on that side of the football, and Friday will be a test of where their development is for that critical skill.
Getting to Hughes in the first place won’t be a cakewalk, however, as Huffman’s offensive line is anchored by senior guard Denzel Holder, a 6-foot-5, 325-pound behemoth with offers from Mercer and Wofford to play D-1 football at the FCS level.
There’s also a couple dynamic weapons for Benjamin Russell’s secondary to worry about on the outside, primarily senior wide receivers Shamaur Gaston and Jamon Reed, a 6-foot-4 basketball star who’s new to the position, Blackwell said.
“(Reed)’s a big, tall, long kid that’s gonna give us some issues on the outside,” Blackwell said. “(Gaston), he’s really talented, not an overly big kid but very shifty, very quick.”
One standout element about both offenses taking the field Friday is that it will be the first game with a new starting quarterback for both sides.
Sophomore Gabe Benton makes his debut for the Wildcats, while sophomore Mekail Johnson takes his first varsity snaps for the Vikings.
Both are threats running the ball while being unproven passers. Of course, being unproven also means there isn’t a lot of film for the opposition to study.
“It’s really hard (to prepare for),” Blackwell said. “We did exchange spring game film, so we did get a chance to watch him play in the spring. He’s very athletic. All we have is that one game, and it’s the same with us and Gabe. They only have one game off us, and there’s been a lot of changes made between last year and this year.”
Benjamin Russell’s offensive game plan involves keeping Huffman’s defense guessing with a mix of run and pass plays, Blackwell said.
Huffman’s defense is anchored by linebacker Rodricus Jones, a fast, physical athlete who will line up in the middle of the Vikings’ defense for traditional linebacker duties or off the shoulder of an offensive tackle to bring additional pressure on pass plays.
“Offensively, we’re gonna have to be very balanced and disciplined,” Blackwell said. “We’re gonna have to protect the football, this isn’t gonna be a game where we can turn the ball over.”
Blackwell also emphasized the importance of physical conditioning for this weekend’s contest, being the team that’s still dictating the pace in the second and fourth quarters will be key for the Wildcats.
Benjamin Russell takes on Huffman at 7 p.m. Friday in Martin-Savarese Stadium.