By KEITH SPARKS
After battling against each other in the intrasquad Purple and White Scrimmage on August 12, the Panthers moved on to face an opponent for the first time this season as they scrimmaged the Alvarado Indians last Saturday.
The road to Alvarado began as the Panthers met at the Liberty Hill field house at 6:15 am on Saturday to prepare for the two and a half hour road trip to Alvarado High School.
The Panthers struggled to get much going during the more controlled portion of the scrimmage, which consisted of each team’s first offense going against their opponent’s first defense for 10 to 15 plays in a row, then the second offense going against the second defense and so forth while the coaches stood on the field nearby. Alvarado scored twice during the controlled portion while Liberty Hill failed to score, but both scores came against Liberty Hill’s fourth- and fifth-string groups.
During the open scrimmage, however, with all coaches on the sidelines and a live clock running for two full quarters in a game-like scenario, the Panthers dominated. After scoring four touchdowns and a field goal, the Panthers won what was essentially the first half of a full game by a score of 31-0, including a 99-yard touchdown run by senior running back Hunter Oncken.
According to Head Coach Jeff Walker, the Panthers seemed more comfortable once the coaches were back on the sidelines, and it showed on the scoreboard.
“When the coaches got off the field, our kids seemed to do a little better,” Walker said. “They were more comfortable, it seemed like, without people right over them. The score was 31 to nothing after a half, but it was sloppy. It was a typical first scrimmage.”
While Walker did say his team looked sloppy while “missing assignments and trying to improvise,” he was pleased with their effort.
“Once again, I thought the effort was good,” he said. “It’s just that we’re not taking very good angles and that kind of stuff, which goes with practice. We didn’t expect to be perfect. If that was the case, we probably wouldn’t be practicing today. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I like the direction we’re going.”
Although the score might make it seem like the Panthers played a perfect game, Walker said they were far from it. Liberty Hill’s Slot-T offense, however, can confuse defenses so much with play fakes that it allows for some mistakes to be made on the offensive end.
“I don’t know if we had any perfect plays,” Walker said. “We had some kids make good plays. We were scoring pretty quick. I think in the half we only ran 15 plays and scored four times, but that’s what this offense is about. I don’t think we had a play where I can look up and say, ‘Man, we did everything right there.’ We’re still missing parts to each play, but fortunately, no matter how bad we are, the offense can make us look good sometimes. You watch tape and go, ‘Oh, we didn’t block anybody,’ but it’s because they didn’t know where the ball was, or we happened to break a tackle, or a fluke happened.”
Walker’s biggest concern right now, he said, is that the Panthers are “playing too high.” He’s not speaking figuratively, but literally. In a game that often comes down to who can get the lowest in a one-on-one battle, the Panthers are standing up too straight and allowing opponents to push them off-balance.
“I like the kids’ effort, but we’re still playing way too high,” Walker said. “It’s my biggest concern. We’re not winning the snap count, which we preach always. We have to get to them before they know what’s going on. We’ve got to play under the cage. We’re still popping up and doing too much pushing. We’re not being as physical as we need to be.”
Walker seemed more impressed with his team’s performance against Alvarado than he did after the Purple and White Scrimmage, but continued to harp on the things the Panthers need to fix, as any good coach does during the preseason in preparation for Friday nights.
“Overall, I couldn’t say I was disappointed,” Walker said. “I thought we finished the scrimmage well. We started out slow and it took us a little while to get going, which we can’t do on Friday nights.”
After the Purple and White Scrimmage, Walker spoke specifically on the Panthers’ need to improve upon their speed and physicality, which he said did not improve enough against Alvarado.
“That’s still a concern of mine, and the kids know,” he said about their speed and physicality. “It’s not like we’re shying away from it. My biggest saying is, ‘We’ve got to bring more punch to the party.’ We’re not bringing much punch right now. We’re not rocking anybody. When we tackle somebody, we’re making tackles, but we’re not punishing them. When we’re blocking people, we’re not getting onto them and running them and punishing them. That’s something that I think comes along with time. We’re still on only day seven or eight in pads, so we haven’t run into a lot of guys. It takes time.”
While Walker has come into this season with tempered expectations, he made it clear that this has been his approach from day one with every team he’s coached.
“In my career, I’ve never gone home and told my wife, ‘Hey, I think we’re going to be pretty good,’ even when we were rocking and rolling,” he said. “I really, truly believe that if we can stay healthy, which is a big deal, and continue to improve daily, we’re going to be pretty good. I think we have a chance to be pretty good. We’re going to be hard to stop.”
Regarding the Panther defense, Walker was as close to complimentary as he has been all season, though he once again admitted that there is work to be done, yet.
“I thought the defense played okay,” he said. “We’re still missing assignments. It’s an assignment defense where you’ve got to do your job. You’ll hear my brother screaming it all the time, ‘Do your job! Don’t worry about making the tackle over here. Do your job and that will happen.’ We still have kids trying to improvise. They’re doing things on their own, and when they do that they leave a gap open and 60 yards later, somebody’s down the field. We’re going in the right direction, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Despite the fact that the Panthers are running a nearly identical offense to what they ran under former Head Coach Jerry Vance, there are some new adjustments to get used to, most of which relate to positional changes.
“I try to run at a little different pace, and, obviously, we don’t run exactly the same stuff, but the biggest deal is that they’ve all changed positions,” Walker said. “My halfback used to play tailback, it’s a brand new tailback, center was a backup, last year’s backup guard is now a tackle, so there’s been a lot of movement. One of our quick tackles was a guard just three or four days ago, so we’re still moving them. We’re not picking it up like I want, but I don’t expect it when you’ve played six days at this one and you’re here for four days, and with how fast we try to go it can boggle the mind with those guys. Only a few kids on offense and a few on defense are playing the exact same position they played last year, so there’s still a lot of learning going on.”
The Panthers will have their last chance to make adjustments before the regular season starts during their home scrimmage this Friday, August 25, against the Taylor Ducks at 6 p.m. at Panther Stadium.