Panthers prepare to face #5 state-ranked China Spring

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Fullback Hunter Oncken (#46) makes his way through the defense during the Panthers’ 59-14 win over the Burnet Bulldogs. On Friday, the Panthers will face the China Spring Cougars, who eliminated Liberty Hill from the playoffs in 2016. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By KEITH SPARKS

All season, Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker’s approach leading up to games has been to focus on his own team rather than the opponent at hand. As Friday nears and the Panthers prepare for China Spring, a team that has beaten the Panthers by more than 30 points in each of their last two matchups, Walker’s approach hasn’t changed.

“Once again, we don’t talk much about China Spring,” Walker said. “We don’t talk much about them. We talk more about ourselves and getting better. I always try to tell them that when we play anybody, we should beat them, and that’s kind of the way we go about it.”

Instead of reminding the Panthers of China Spring’s number five state ranking and Division I talent on both sides of the ball, Walker and his coaching staff have decided to play them down. Now that both teams have secured a spot in the playoffs, their message to his team is that this is “just another district football game.”

“We don’t make them big,” Walker said. “Sometimes, coaches can build them up too big. I haven’t built them up big. La Vega was just another game and China Spring will be just another game. These guys already think (China Spring) is a great team, and they are a great team, but I don’t want us going in thinking they’re so good we can’t beat them, so we just kind of downplay it. The kids know it’s a big game. They know what they’re about and they know what we’re about. It’s really going to come down to who wants it more on Friday night.”

According to Walker, China Spring runs a Spread offense that gets the most out of their uber-athletic receivers and running backs. Senior receiver Tyrick James, who has committed to Tulane, is one of the Cougars’ most dangerous weapons, and they won’t hesitate to give him the ball in the backfield as a running back if the situation calls for it.

“They spread you out, but they like to run it,” Walker said. “They have a really fast receiver and a big guy, James, who they bring all over the field. He’s probably 6’3” and 230 or so. He’s pretty legit. They’ve got a couple real speedy guys on the edge, and they’ll bring the big one in the backfield and toss it to him, and he’s hard to tackle at 6’3”, 230. He’s probably a 4.9 (40-yard dash) kid, so people have trouble tackling him. He’ll be playing at the next level.”

China Spring quarterback Cayden Johnson is capable of doing damage both through the air and on the ground, making it difficult for the Panthers to drop back in coverage and key in on the Cougars’ explosive receivers.

“Offensively, they don’t have a weakness,” Walker said. “They’re very skilled and they’re very good at what they do. Quarterback does enough to throw the ball, and he can run enough to where you can’t just not watch him, so offensively, they’re up there with some of the other teams we’ve played. I think they’re averaging 40 points a game.”

On the defensive end, China Spring’s most impactful player is senior linebacker Brayden Mathis, who set the school record for tackles with 178 as a sophomore. As a junior, he finished with 138 tackles and four interceptions. According to Walker, he’s the best linebacker they’ll face this season.

“Defensively, they have probably the best linebacker we’ll see all year,” Walker said. “Big ol’ kid, good linebacker. They’re just real scrappy, real fast, and they play with high motors. Their defense has high motors. They run fast and have high motors. They fly around to the ball with a little attitude. When they hit you, they bring it, so it’s going to be a challenge.”

The closest thing the Cougars have to a weakness is a relatively small defensive line, compared to others Liberty Hill has seen this season. Their secondary, however, is bigger than most. If the Panthers can hold their blocks up front, their backfield could have a field day.

“They’re not as big up front as what we’ve seen, so we’re hoping that will help us a little,” Walker said. “They’re quicker and faster, but they probably have eight kids that are 6’0”, 200 pounds on that team, so their secondary has some big kids. They’re just big kids that run to the ball real well, so it’s going to be a challenge in how fast they are. They’re going to be one of the faster teams. They match up real well with La Vega in speed. They’re not as big up front as La Vega, but they’re quicker. It’s going to be interesting to see how we match up with them there, because if we can block their front six, eight, we have a chance, but I don’t know. We should be able to, because they’re not big kids. Burnet had 6’3”, 280, and they’ve got 6’0”, 200.”

Although their defensive line isn’t huge, China Spring’s defense, as a whole, is one of the fastest in the district. Much of the Panthers’ offensive damage is typically done by their halfbacks on the outside edge, which may not be the case against the speed of China Spring.

“We’ve just got to deal with the speed of the game,” Walker said. “It’s hard to toss on them, because they’re quick on the edge. Against a lot of teams, we’ve been able to get the edge, so that’s going to be a challenge for us. They’re fast and physical, which is something we want to be, so it’s going to be a big challenge for us.”

For the Panther defense, the goal is to stop the big plays that the Cougars have had so much success with. If Liberty Hill can force them into enough third-down scenarios, eventually, they’ll make a mistake.

“What you want to do is, and it’s always the case, you want to make them bleed all the way down,” Walker said. “You don’t want to give them big plays. They’re a big-play offense. That’s what they do. They’ll throw a little bubble and they’ll go 90. They’ll toss it to that back and he’ll break six tackles and go 70. What you do is try to make them make a mistake, because they will. These Spread offenses, if you can get them down to third and 4, third and 5, make them do three downs and slow them down a little bit and don’t give up the big play, it sure helps your cause.”

Walker believes the Cougars’ reliance on the pass in certain situations can come back to bite them if the Panthers execute accordingly. If they don’t, they’ll likely end up on the wrong side of some big plays.

“They throw it enough, and the old saying with throwing the ball, ‘Only one good thing happens and two bad things: incomplete, interception, or they catch it,’” Walker said. “We’ll try to stop the big plays if we can, but that’s easier said than done. They’re a big-play offense. If you can stop the big plays and keep them on the sidelines, you’ve got a chance.”

The Panthers will look to upset the Cougars in their second-to-last district game at Panther Stadium at 7:30 on Friday, Nov. 3.

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