Mark Freeman likes coaching quarterbacks and loves high-flying offensive attacks. Those things are certainly part of championship teams. But the veteran Thompson High coach also knows the ingredients to a championship football team.
And those ingredients begin on the other side of the football.
“I think the success of our season is due to the defense,” Freeman said. “The game tomorrow night will play out that if our defense plays good, we got a heckuva chance to win the ballgame.”
The “game tomorrow night” just happens to be the AHSAA Class 7A championship matchup between the Warriors and unbeaten Central-Phenix City with kickoff slated for 7 o’clock on Wednesday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Freeman is quick to point out the Warriors, who are known for a prolific offense, wouldn’t be in Auburn with some clutch play by the defense, particularly in playoff wins over Hewitt-Trussville and Hoover.
“That’s the thing that gets lost,” Freeman said. “If we don’t play great defense we don’t win against Hoover. If we don’t play great defense, we don’t beat Trussville. As a play caller, I love working with the quarterbacks and I love offensive football. But, defensively, is where you win games and win championships.”
You have to look all over the field to pinpoint defensive players making big contributions. Senior linebacker Will Conner, a UAB commitment, has a team-best 135 tackles with 14 tackles for loss and four sacks. Fellow seniors Will Hoffman (103 tackles with 14 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks) and Eric Mizell (73 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) anchor the front and freshman Jeremiah Alexander (74 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, six sacks) already has a host of SEC offers.
Cornerback Jalen Bustamante (74 tackles, seven interceptions) and safety D.J. Douglas (95 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, four interceptions) make big plays all over the field.
That’s just the start of a group that faces a big challenge on Wednesday against a Central-Phenix City team that averages 41 points per game. Quarterback Peter Parrish is a LSU commit but backup junior Tucker Melton is so good that the two share time and have combined for 32 touchdowns. Running back Amontae Spivey, who has rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 19 touchdowns, is an Arkansas commit. The offensive line includes several college recruits.
“They got a good quarterback, a LSU commit, they got a good running back, a big, big offensive line and really good skill players,” Freeman said.
One key on Wednesday could be to keep the Central-Phenix City offense off the field. A way to do that could be put the ball in the hands of Byrd, who keys a running attack that also features sophomore Jarrett Crockett and quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. Byrd, who mixes speed with a bruising running style, has been sensational in the playoffs and enters Wednesday’s game with 1,340 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground.
If Central-Phenix City loads up the box to stop the run, then that opens things up for Tagovailoa and the passing game. The sensational quarterback is 261-of-426 for 3,684 yards with 35 touchdowns and five interceptions in 12 games. Michael Pettway (74 catches, 17 touchdowns) and J.B. Mitchell (54 catches, six touchdowns) are his most frequent targets but it was A.J. Bonham coming up with the big catches late in the win over Hoover.
On Wednesday, the Warriors offense faces a Central-Phenix City defense that has playmakers all over the field, including Clemson commit safety Ray Thornton.
“Defense, the speed that they play with, we (can’t copy) that in practice,” Freeman said. “We haven’t played anybody as fast as they are on defense. There’s nobody up here even close. But we’ve played some great teams up here, we’ve come through the gamut.”
No matter what happens on Wednesday, it’s been a special season – and really a special two seasons – for a Thompson team that came within a game of making the state championship game in 2017.
“The thing we lean on is we kind of prepare our kids for this,” Freeman said. “We talk about it in June and July. We can all sit here and act like there’s not going to be a state championship game at the end of the year, but there is going to be. Coaches fool themselves, a lot of times, saying, ‘We can’t look ahead.’ As a head coach, you’ve got to have vision, you’ve got to know the reality that somebody is going to be down there playing in this game. As the season goes, you talk about winning this play. If you win enough plays, you enough win enough quarters that you win enough games. You prepare for the next game.”
Afterwards, it’s all about preparing for the next step.
“Like I told them yesterday, there’s going to be a sun (rise) after this game, the next morning,” Freeman said. “It’s not going to be determined by who wins this game. The next day of your life is going to be here.”