The Indians (3-0, 1-0) are coming off a bye week to face Hardin Valley in Friday night’s Region 1-6A contest at J. Fred Johnson Stadium. Prior to the bye, they were playing with confidence plus the momentum of a five-game winning streak dating to last season.
Now, they meet the Hawks (1-3, 0-1), the last team to defeat them. D-B led 17-0 in that game before Hardin Valley reeled off 35 unanswered points for the win.
This is a new season but Tribe coach Joey Christian knows a key is stopping Hawks running back Kelton Gunn. Last year, Gunn accounted for rushing, receiving and passing touchdowns.
“Everything they do starts with Kelton Gunn,” Christian said. “He’s a tremendous football player.”
Gunn helped the Hawks get out of some third-and-long situations last year, which were key to the comeback. The other running back, Luke Filipkowski, brings power and a battering-ram style at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds.
“He’s a hard-nosed football player who starts both ways,” Christian said. “I can’t even get the kids to understand how good he is offensively and defensively and how much he means to their team. We have No. 2 (Filipkowski) and No. 7 (Gunn) circled that these are two main guys.”
Senior Jacob Smith is listed as the starting quarterback, although junior Sam Simpson has also taken snaps. Christian expects more of the battle to be up front where the Hawks’ offensive line features center Casey Bowen (6-1, 245) and tackles Isaac Wilhite (6-1, 270) and Maverick Mount (6-2, 240).
“If we don’t leverage the football the way we’re supposed to, it’s going to be a long night for the Indians,” he said. “We have to play well in the front six and not give them running lanes up the middle. We have to leverage the football in our perimeter run sets.”
D-B’s defense has been aggressive through three games. Seven players, led by Nate Whitley and Braxton Kulbacki with 25 tackles each, have double-digit stops. The others are Jet Harris, Jackson Martin, Isaac Ratliff, Cam Williamson and Ricky Wagner.
INDIANS OFFENSE VS. HAWKS DEFENSE
The Tribe’s two-headed rushing attack has seen Phillip “Thunder” Armitage and Tyler “Lightning” Tesnear combine for 520 yards and six touchdowns. The Hawks offer a defense more in tuned with stopping the run than what the Indians saw their last game.
“Where Bearden stayed back, they gave you a chance to run the football,” Christian said. “They weren’t quick to bring that seventh hat into the box. Hardin Valley is the opposite with the seventh hat in the box. They will work to the pass out of that. We have win up front and be the more physical team.”
In addition to Filipkowski on defense, D-B must be aware of Devon Jones, a 6-3, 310-pound tackle, and Derek Whitaker, a Mike linebacker who Christian says plays downhill and hard. Christian also has high praise for 6-2, 225 defensive end Jaylen Moore, whom he considers to be as talented a player as any on the field.
Christian expects the Hawks’ aggressive defense to blitz more than the Indians’ first three opponents. That means more pressure on D-B’s offensive line featuring starters Caleb Burleson, Seth Hale, Caden McNabb, Aiden Neale and Kyler Banks as well as on quarterback Zane Whitson.
“We’ve got to be sound in our protection and make sure we’re sound in our gaps,” Christian said. “Occasionally when we miss a block or they bring more than we can block, Zane has to make the right decisions.”
But an aggressive defense may also mean more opportunities for big plays. Science Hill quarterback Connor Batchelder threw for 340 yards in the Hilltoppers’ 52-14 romp over the Hawks.
D-B has enjoyed a huge advantage all season in the kicking game. Jaden Alderson has made 4 of 5 field goals and 13 of 14 extra points and has been a weapon on kickoffs.
“It’s a tribute to Jaden and the work he’s put in,” Christian said. “There have only been two kickoffs returned. It makes it tough for the opposing team to have to go 80 yards. He’s 4-for-5 on field goals and the one that he missed, Oak Ridge blocked on the first series. It was nothing on Jaden’s effort. The way he works on the craft, all the good things, he deserves it.”
Dalton Harkleroad leads the way with three kickoff returns for 146 yards, including an 85-yarder for a touchdown against Tennessee High. Romeo Simmons and Isaac Ratliff have also had kick and punt returns over 25 yards.
“Dalton is an explosive player, very quick,” Christian said. “The kickoff return against Tennessee High got our season off right. Romeo Simmons and Jackson Martin had big returns against Bearden. Our kicking game has been a strength of ours and we want to make it an advantage Friday night as well.”