Warren’s philosophy on defense is simple and will be greatly exercised on Friday night as they prepare to take on Booneville in the 4A State championship at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
“We want to play technique football and we want everybody to have a certain job to do,” Warren defensive coordinator Chris Watkins said. “We just got to got hit people in the mouth.”
Warren is making its fourth appearance in the state championship game in the Bo Hembree era. They won back-to-back titles against Booneville 45-39 in 2001 and against Rivercrest 38-28 in 2002. The last title appearance resulted in a disappointing loss to Nashville 21-20 back in 2006. Aside from the fact that the Lumberjacks are eager to seek a championship win, the physicality of the game is what Watkins believes brings the defense together.
“Over three years we’ve had the same guys and they’ve finally figured it out to where at some point some someone is going to hit you in the mouth and you’ve got to hit them back,” Watkins said..
Senior linebacker Kendrick Newton is the cornerstone of a defense that has brought physicality all season. Finishing as a finalist for the Farm Bureau 4A Defensive Player of the Year, Newton makes it known that all the hard work that the defense has put in has been part of a goal of his. “
It’s one of the best feelings in my life as of right now. This game is what I’ve been wanting my whole life,” said Newton, who has 104 tackles on the season.
Sophomore linebacker D’Angelo McCoy is poised to be the heir apparent to Newton, amassing 115 tackles on the season. Even though he’s young, Newton is appreciative of McCoy’s growth in his position.
“He came in getting experience as a freshman and that carried in this year and I’m very proud of him,” Newton said. McCoy states that the communication and leadership of Newton has been helpful. “It’s good because we have to make tackles and not miss tackles,” said McCoy.
Along with physicality comes the play making ability of the defense. Senior cornerback Chris Oliver recorded an interception before halftime against Arkadelphia to end a scoring drive when Warren won three weeks ago 31-24. Last week against Valley View, Oliver snatched down another interception to secure a 27-20 victory.
“It’s my vision,” Oliver said. “Knowing the offense and knowing what down they’re on, I just pay attention and I go to where I have to be.”
Warren’s defense allows an average of 17 points per game with three shutouts for the season. The solid play of the defense at this point can be granted to the nonconference schedule of the Lumberjacks.
“We played really good offenses in Fayetteville, Pulaski Academy and Camden,” Warren head coach Bo Hembree said. “As we got into conference, the game slowed down for them, they got better each week. They’re the heart and soul of our team. As far as keeping us in the the game they pretty much won it for us last week.”
The winning play that Hembree is referring to is not the 95 yard drive that was led by senior quarterback Drake Jones, but the forced fumble by junior safety Calyx Harris and the recovery by senior safety Odis Miller as Valley View running back Jaegar Sullins was rushing towards the end zone. It’s what gave the offense a chance to rally back as Hembree always preaches to his team “somebody has to make a play.”
“It was a sweep and Harris came out of now where and striped the ball and everything just slowed down,” Miller said. “I feel like if I mess up I let my team down. I’m the last line of defense.”
Everything up to this point for Warren’s defense has been a combination of playing hard and having everyone doing their assignments and doing them well. Friday night’s game against Booneville may be the most physical test of them all for the Lumberjacks since the Bearcats run the ball more than anything.
All in all, the way the team plays defense is the reason that they’re here anyway and should be more of a reason that they will step up to the challenge.
“They just play every play and don’t look at the scoreboard. They’ve done that every game and have been unbelievable at it,” Hembree said.