Ridge­land, Her­itage bring dy­na­mite de­fenses into 6-AAAA bat­tle tonight

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - WEEKEND BLITZ - BY LIND­SEY YOUNG STAFF WRITER

With Hal­loween near­ing and high school foot­ball’s reg­u­lar sea­son en­ter­ing its home stretch, it’s time to find out what’s real and what’s make-be­lieve.

It doesn’t get any more real in north­west Ge­or­gia tonight than Ridge­land at Her­itage.

The Re­gion 6-AAAA co-lead­ers haven’t just rolled through their sched­ules un­de­feated — the Pan­thers are 6-0 over­all and 2-0 in 6-AAAA, with the Gen­er­als 7-0 and 3-0 — they’ve done it in such dom­i­nat­ing fash­ion that Ge­or­gia High School Foot­ball Daily listed tonight’s matchup at Jeff Sims Field as one of the state’s top games this week.

Each team’s per-game av­er­ages for points scored and points al­lowed rank in Class AAAA’s top 10. Ridge­land’s 4.6 points per game al­lowed is the best in the state in all clas­si­fi­ca­tions. Her­itage has al­lowed an av­er­age of 12.29 points, but a closer look paints the Gen­er­als’ as much stingier. Their first-team de­fense has al­lowed 32 points this sea­son, giv­ing them the same 4.6 points per game as the Pan­thers.

In to­day’s era of fast-break, air-it-out of­fenses, the de­fen­sive num­bers stand out.

“With both teams, as much as any­thing, it’s the ex­pe­ri­ence fac­tor,” Ridge­land coach Wes­ley Tanker­s­ley said. “Just like us, they have a lot of kids back and that ex­pe­ri­ence means ev­ery­thing.”

The Pan­thers have posted two shutouts and given up a sin­gle touch­down in their other four games this year. The unit is led by 2016 Class AAAA de­fen­sive player of the year Markeith Mont­gomery, a cat-quick, ball-hawk­ing safety who is just as good against the run as the pass.

The big­gest im­prove­ment, Tanker­s­ley said, has come up front, where Eli Foshay, Der­ayl Hel­ton and Jor­dan Tucker have con­sis­tently made their way into op­po­nents’ back­fields — and what­ever might get past them is quickly smoth­ered. The three have com­bined for 16 tack­les for loss.

Mont­gomery is the team’s lead­ing tack­ler with 57, and along with Aza­vier Black­well, Jor­dan Hugh­ley and Shawn Wil­son, he heads a sec­ondary that has given up vir­tu­ally noth­ing through the air.

“Our de­fen­sive line has played re­ally well,” said Tanker­s­ley, whose team al­lowed nearly 20 points per game a year ago dur­ing a nine-win sea­son. “We had quite a few younger guys play­ing last year, and they’re just more com­fort­able this year.”

Her­itage’s de­fen­sive leap has been even more pro­nounced. The Gen­er­als gave up nearly 26 points per game last sea­son, in­clud­ing 56 in a lop­sided loss to Ridge­land. The im­prove­ment, Slaugh­ter said, has been ex­pe­ri­ence in co­or­di­na­tor Jeremy New’s schemes, a good year in the weight room and the abil­ity of the de­fen­sive line to keep block­ers off the team’s ex­cel­lent group of lineback­ers.

That group — Zaine Bur­ton, Jef­frey Cur­tis and Hank Wel­don — have a com­bined 145 tack­les. Nearly a third of those have been for neg­a­tive yardage, led by Bur­ton’s whop­ping 24 tack­les for loss and eight sacks.

“Zaine’s been play­ing his tail off, and those guys in front of him have been do­ing their jobs as well,” Slaugh­ter said. “The whole unit is play­ing as well as any I’ve been around.”

What wor­ries Slaugh­ter is the over­all team speed the vis­i­tors will bring with them tonight. Mont­gomery, also a wing­back in Ridge­land’s wing-T of­fense, has av­er­aged 16 yards per carry this sea­son, while re­ceiver Stephon Moore has eight touch­downs on 19 catches and has av­er­aged 25 yards per touch. Full­back Ja­lyn Shel­ton, who torched the Gen­er­als a year ago, has 509 yards and 11 touch­downs.

“It’s dif­fi­cult,” Slaugh­ter said of pre­par­ing for the Pan­thers. “They do a good job get­ting their ath­letes in good sit­u­a­tions. The also have that in­side power game, so it’s dif­fi­cult to game plan.”

On the other side, the Pan­thers’ de­fense will face the most di­verse of­fense it has seen this sea­son. The Gen­er­als don’t run often, but they have four play­ers, in­clud­ing quar­ter­back Blake Bryan, who have rushed for more than 200 yards. The main play­mak­ers are se­nior wide re­ceivers Ryan Carter and Luke Grant, each of whom has av­er­aged more than 100 yards in the past two games.

“Those guys are good, but we’re not go­ing to change any­thing we’ve been do­ing,” Tanker­s­ley said. “They will get a big play at some point in time, but we want to limit those plays.”

The game is ar­guably the most im­por­tant in the eight-year his­tory of the Her­itage pro­gram, some­thing not lost on Slaugh­ter, who has told his play­ers to en­joy the mo­ment.

“Ev­ery­body is ex­cited, amped up a bit more than usual,” said Slaugh­ter, who took over prior to the 2014 sea­son. “Four years ago, this game was far off in the dis­tance, and for us to be able to host a game like this with cham­pi­onship hopes on the line, it’s a tes­ta­ment to the coaches and kids.

“It’s go­ing to be a great at­mos­phere. I ex­pect it to be a lot of fun.”

STAFF FILE PHOTO BY DOUG STRICKLAND

Ridge­land se­nior safety Markeith Mont­gomery has a nose for the ball — and tak­ing it away — which means Her­itage’s of­fense has to ac­count for him on ev­ery play tonight dur­ing their Re­gion 6-AAAA matchup at Jeff Sims Field. Both the Pan­thers and Gen­er­als are un­de­feated this sea­son.

STAFF PHOTO BY ROBIN RUDD

Line­backer Zaine Bur­ton leads the much-im­proved Her­itage de­fense with 24 tack­les for lost yardage this sea­son. Jef­frey Cur­tis and Hank Wel­don have also stood out.

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