Sep. 22—The Yellow Jackets have shown glimpses of success and potential here and there through the first month of the season, but Cleburne's inability to put all three phases together in one game has resulted in an 0-4 start going into week 5's showdown with Midlothian.
Last week's 29-26 loss at Granbury is a prime example. Cleburne's defense stood strong in the first half, holding Granbury to one field goal despite the Pirates having excellent field position. Cleburne's offense made big plays in the second and third quarters to grab a lead. But the Jackets' special teams had a disappointing performance most of the game, and those struggles directly resulted in a disappointing defeat.
In week 1, Cleburne's defense struggled in a 54-20 loss to Houston Heights. In week 2, it was a cumulative struggle in a 64-0 loss to No. 7 Midlothian Heritage. In week 3, Cleburne's defense stood strong but the offense couldn't move the ball aside from one play in a 23-7 loss to Killeen. And then the special teams woes last week.
After last week's special teams implosion — two bad deep snaps on a punt and a blocked extra point, among other issues — Cleburne Coach Jim Woodard said they've "gone back to the drawing board" with their special teams.
"We're checking our depth charts, seeing who's there and seeing who can fit into certain spots better," Woodard said. "We're seeing if we can change some things around a bit and put guys in a better position."
Arguably the most under-appreciated position in football — if not all of sports — is the long snapper on the punt unit. Snapping the ball that far with precision and then being one of the first to run down in coverage is a tougher gig than it appears.
There's a reason all 32 NFL teams have one player on their 46-man gameday roster that is a long snapper specialist.
"It's an important position," Woodard said. "At all three levels — high school, college and NFL — you've got to have somebody who can not only snap it and get it where it needs to be accurately, but that's also got to be somebody who can run down the field and make a tackle. ... You want to have a kid there in that spot who can snap it well and get down the field to help you cover the punt. It takes a special kid that can do that. It's an important position."
Woodard said they've tried a couple of different players at long snapper but haven't been able to get it down consistently. The Jackets have had at least five long snaps go over the punter's head so far this season.
After the week 3 loss to Killeen, Woodard said he believed they were close to putting it all together; it's just a matter of everyone doing their job consistently in all three phases. And it appears the Jackets are headed that way.
Even if Cleburne manages to put together a complete outing in all three phases this week, a win won't come easy with undefeated Midlothian (4-0, 2-0) coming to town.
"They're really good up front on both sides of the ball," Woodard said. "They're a super, super physical football team. They're coached really well up front. Their five guys on the offensive line are really big and come off the ball in a hurry and get a good push at the line of scrimmage. On the defensive side, their four guys up front stop a lot of people from running the football. They do a really good job of taking away the run and make you beat them by doing something not a lot of high school teams can do well, and that's throwing the ball well. They do a good job of taking the run away from you with their scheme, size and physicality up front."
Running the ball has been an area of weakness for Cleburne so far as the Jackets have averaged just 2.4 yards per carry and 61.75 rushing yards per game through their first four games.
One of the key reasons for Cleburne's inability to get a rushing attack going is injuries on the offensive line and at running back/fullback.
"Right now, we're just trying to find some continuity up front," Woodard said. "We played the second half Friday without our starting right tackle and we lost our starting left tackle at different times during the game, and that's including not having our starting center at all. So we've had a rotating offensive line in the ball game at different times. If you have one of those guys injured, you struggle and we've had multiple guys in and out.
"It's hard to be fluid up front and block when those guys up front never know who's lining up next to each other. 'Is it the same center? Is it a different center? Is it the same right tackle or a different right tackle?' Those guys have to communicate non-stop to help each other. We've struggled in the run game this year but it's because we haven't had a continuos O-line with guys coming in and out because of injuries."
Midlothian, which runs a flexbone offense, will challenge Cleburne's defense in all aspects.
"They run an offensive scheme you don't see a lot of anymore in a flexbone," Woodard said. "It's going to take a disciplined approach to tackle the dive back, tackle the quarterback and tackle the pitch man on every single play."
While most flexbone offenses are centered primarily on the ground and may only throw the ball a couple times per game, the Panthers have paired their strong rushing attack with an efficient passing game. Junior receiver Bryant Wesco, a three-star recruit, has 411 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 22 receptions through four games. Wesco had six receptions for 120 yards and three touchdowns in the first half of last week's win over Waco.
"They've gone from a traditional flexbone which is under center and moved it more to the spread and they get one or two receivers out wide," Woodard said. "They'll even get in a three wide receiver set and bring motion. They do a good job of spreading people out to get extra gaps in the run game. They make you commit to the run game then get their receiver some 1-on-1 looks. They try to make you declare to stop [Wesco] or declare to stop the run game. They do a good job schematically to get that done."
Woodard said the recipe to success against Midlothian is for all 11 players on offense and defense to give full effort and play assignment football.
"It's going to take a tremendous effort for all 11 guys on both sides of the football," Woodard said. "On offense, we're going to have to find a way to put first downs together and keep their offense off the field. On defense, we'll have to get all 11 hats running to the football and playing as one and try to stop their attack."
After Cleburne's defense allowed an average of 59 points per game the first two weeks, Woodard said he's pleased with how the Jackets' defense has played against Killeen and Granbury, where they've allowed an average of 26 points per game.
"Defense is really playing well," Woodard said. "Friday night they played really, really well. Granbury came out with some great halftime adjustments and did some things they haven't shown on film in the three previous games and even the first half of that game. They went away from what they had done that was successful in three games because we took it away from them. I credit that to our defense making them make those adjustments.
"After that first drive in the second half, we got some stuff figured out. If not for turnovers or mistakes on special teams, our defense probably holds them to seven points because everything else they got we gave them off turnovers or special teams mistakes. Defensively, we're playing really well."
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Friday from Yellow Jacket Stadium.