By Erik Harris
DECATUR – If there is a weakness to this Clay-Chalkville football team that’s won 28 consecutive contests dating back to the 2014 opener, it’s rush defense.
The 2015 version of the top-ranked Cougars is arguably better in certain categories than the state championship winning team that it succeeded. But, buried among all of the seemingly unbreakable layers of this unbeaten and rarely untested juggernaut is three missing pieces.
Few teams have been capable of exploiting the loss of Kendell Jones, Nick McDaniel and LaDarius Harris, but No. 8 Austin, who stands between Clay-Chalkville and its second trip to the state finals in as many years, has the weapons capable of running through the holes left by those three standouts.
Defensive coordinator Sean Talsma and his rebuilt unit have been nothing short of impressive this season; especially considering that he’s held the opposition to 17.5 points per game with only one returning starter from last season’s unit. However, physical offenses – most notably Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa – have been problematic for the otherwise salty Cougar defense. The Patriots narrowly missed a September opportunity to hand Clay-Chalkville its first loss, as elite running back Brian Robinson ran through, around and over Talsma’s defense.
Robinson set the new standard for Class 6A ball carriers with 447 yards and four rushing touchdowns on that September night. That outburst set a Class 6A single game rushing record and raised the question: Can the Cougars win another state title without Jones, McDaniel and Harris?
Homewood brought the discussion up again in Round 2, as they pushed the defending champs to the edge, but eventually fell 40-39. Patriots’ running back Derrick Underwood rushed for 123 yards and two scores to go along with quarterback Carson Griffis’ pair of scores on 87 rushing yards.
That’s where Victor Garth and his big offensive tackle come into play.
No. 8 Austin and its dual-threat quarterback ran wild in a quarterfinal win at No. 10 Gardendale last week. Garth submitted seven touchdowns in the 53-38 road win to set the table for a mammoth battle in Shorty Ogle Stadium this Friday night.
The Black Bears amassed 571 total yards of offense on Gardendale, 385 of which came on the ground. Garth, who went for 281 rush yards and six scores, did much of his work through the holes created by offensive tackle Deonte Brown, an Alabama verbal pledge.
Brown is listed at 6-foot-4, 347 pounds and is considered the No. 3 Class of 2016 offensive guard in the country by ESPN.
Robert Carter of the North Jefferson News describing Brown: “a 6-foot-4, 347-pound mountain of an offensive lineman who opened up holes in the Rocket defense with regularity.”
Seniors Cole Baker, Qutavius Barber and Kyle Cobb along with the rest of the Clay-Chalkville front seven will be asked to confront a mountain, stop a bullet and answer that important question: Can the Cougars (without Jones, McDaniel and Harris) win another state championship?
Clay-Chalkville (13-0) and Austin (10-3) will fight for a birth in the Super 7 this Friday night in Decatur. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Erik Harris is the Sports Editor for the Trussville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter@jeharris2 or email him at email@example.com.