Panthers play waiting game for next contest

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By Scott Akanewich

When the Liberty Hill Panthers walked off the field after their 40-7 victory in Marble Falls on Oct. 30, they knew they wouldn’t return to the gridiron for competition for 21 days, as back-to-back bye weeks on the schedule have arrived, with the next game on Nov. 20 at home against Navarro.

One man who isn’t happy about the break in action is head coach Jeff Walker.

“I don’t even like having one bye week, no less two,” he said. “But, it can come at a good time, so everyone can catch their breath.”

With that in mind, Walker said his players will get some time away from football over the next couple weeks in order to refresh mentally and physically.

“We’re going to give them some time off to focus on other things,” he said. “We’re also going to shorten our practices to about 90 minutes and only work on one specific aspect each day.”

The injury bug that bit the Panthers so severely last season has so far stayed away this fall, so the break in between games isn’t coming in as handy from a medical standpoint as last season, said Walker.

“We’re pretty healthy right now – knock on wood,” he said. “But, then again, we haven’t been playing full games this season. I wouldn’t have minded having one or two.”

Walker was referring to the weak level of competition his team has faced this season – particularly in district play, in which the Panthers have been victorious by scores of 76-0, 86-0, 42-0 and 40-7, meaning he’s been able to empty his bench and rest starters once these contests have been out of hand, thus limiting the physical toll on his players.

Against Marble Falls, senior linebacker Luke Huddleston racked up 14 tackles – tied for the team lead with junior backer Andon Thomas – bested this season by a Panthers defender only by yet another linebacker, Aaron Brewer, who put together a 15-tackle performance against McCallum.

Considering Huddleston only had 21 stops on the entire season going into the game, that means 40 percent of his production came against Marble Falls, something he attributed to how the Mustangs were running their plays against the Panthers’ defense.

“They kept running traps,” said Huddleston, who currently ranks third on the team with 35 tackles on the season. “If the nose does his job in that situation and blows up the center, the running back will bounce back out to me.”

Another number to consider is the fact Huddleston’s weight resides far south of 200 pounds, meaning he’s often outweighed by opponents, but not outsmarted, he said.

“For me, it’s all about form tackling,” said Huddleston. “So, my size doesn’t matter as long as you’re fast.”

Huddleston added he and his teammates would rather be playing games on the next two Friday nights, but will have to be content with working on their collective game instead.

“We need to focus on the little things,” he said. “Fundamentals and going over as many plays as we can in practice.”

Liberty Hill’s defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown since a garbage-time score in the final minute of the Panthers’ 44-27 road win over Del Valle all the way back on Oct. 2, which is something Huddleston and the entire defensive unit is fiercely proud of, he said.

“Our goal when we go out there is to not give up a point,” said Huddleston. “It’s the greatest feeling ever when you completely shut a team down – it’s like nothing else.”

When Killeen Ellison connected on a 75-yard touchdown pass on the season’s first play from scrimmage in the season-opener on Sept. 25 – a 44-25 Liberty Hill home win – Huddleston said he and his fellow defenders simple made a mental note of what had just happened, as opposed to going directly into panic mode over the situation.

“We knew we made a mistake on that play,” he said. “So, we just made sure it wasn’t going to happen again.”

Six weeks later and the Panthers’ defense is poised to not allow even a single point – no less a touchdown – over the course of the entire district schedule, with only two games remaining against Navarro and Northeast Early College, who have both struggled to score this season.

Huddleston said he and the defense are in no mood to soften up at this point.

“We’re going to be more physical than you are and we’re never going to give up,” he said. “We’re going to make games like a toughman contest and we’re the last one standing.”

Walker said running the table on defense is a distinct possibility.

“Honestly,” he said. “I’ll be shocked if we give up another touchdown.”

Walker added his team’s intensity level and focus increased against Marble Falls following a week leading up to the contest which featured members of the Mustangs using social media to stir up a war of words – one which his squad was going to have no part engaging in, he said.

“I tell them that every week,” said Walker. “Our kids know if you have to go around telling people how good you are, you’re probably not very good. All we want to do is take care of our business, beat you, shake your hand after the game and move on.”

As for what lies beyond the district schedule in the postseason, the Panthers, as District 14 champions, will face the fourth-place team from District 13, which appears as if the opponent will be either East View or Glenn and the fact both can throw the ball effectively worries Walker, he said.

“In the first round, we’re going to see a really good passing team and that concerns me,” said Walker, particularly of the Patriots, who are averaging over 200 yards per game through the air this season. “East View has a real talented group of kids.”

But, first things, he said.

“We have five weeks until then,” said Walker. “But, as coaches we’re always looking ahead.”

However, he’s not worried about his players falling into that trap, he said.

“I don’t know if our kids look past tomorrow,” said Walker. “They’re just focused on getting the job done.”

Despite the fact the Panthers continue to roll offensively, Walker is still concerned about winning the war up front on a consistent basis.

“We talk about establishing the line of scrimmage on the defense’s side,” he said. “I think we were better this past week (against Marble Falls), but it seems like we’ll play one or two good downs and then lose focus for the next four or five. If I knew what it was that causes it, I would’ve already fixed it.”

All that being said, Walker’s not concerned about being the cowboy who leads his horse to water, but can’t make it drink as far as his constant message to his players falling on deaf ears is concerned, although his approach has changed over the years.

“Sometimes you can get on a kid and they’ll respond, but others will just shut down,” said Walker. “I think back during my first stint here (as offensive coordinator under former head coach Jerry Vance), I was more the intense, tell-it-how-it-is coach. But, there’s no doubt, I’ve mellowed a bit since then and I’m in a different role now (as athletic director and head coach).”

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