HARTSELLE — Tyler Phillips thought about the question.
A few moments passed, and still no answer.
There’s a reason why. Trying to compare Wenonah High quarterback Barry Johnson to anyone Hartselle faced this season is impossible.
“He’s the best athlete we’ve seen, by far,” said Phillips, a senior defensive back for the Tigers. “It’s not even close.”
High praise considering the difficult schedule Hartselle played. The Tigers (7-4) host Wenonah (10-1) tonight in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs. Kickoff is scheduled for 7.
There weren’t many holes in Hartselle’s schedule. For the defending state champions, almost every week was a difficult grind.
But no team the Tigers faced can match the speed and athleticism Wenonah will bring to J.P. Cain Stadium.
“Big, fast and athletic. That sums them up in a nutshell,” Hartselle coach Bob Godsey said. “If their quarterback isn’t the best athlete we’ve seen, then it’s their go-to receiver (Nicolas Jackson). They’ve got big-play guys all over the field.”
The talent-rich lineup has led to Wenonah’s best season in years. The Dragons average 33 points per game, while holding opponents to 5.5.
Everything revolves around Johnson, a 6-foot-1 and 190-pound dual-threat quarterback. The Wenonah senior built his reputation as a gifted runner, but he also has plenty toys in the passing game.
De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-6 and 220-pound receiver, is listed as a three-star prospect by Rivals.com. He has offers from Mississippi State, Louisville and Alabama State.
And Wilson isn’t even Wenonah’s top receiver. Jackson and LaTarrius Powell — both athletic speedsters — lead the Dragons in receiving.
“This is pretty much a deep-threat team,” Godsey said. “When they throw the ball, they take shots downfield. For us, we have to limit big plays. … Make them snap the football and try our best to contain.”
With Wenonah’s spread offense, pass plays are called often. That doesn’t always mean the ball gets put in the air.
Not with Johnson at quarterback.
“They call a lot of pass plays, but the quarterback scrambles around and makes plays with his feet a lot,” Godsey said. “And he’s a gifted athlete. He’s big, strong, fast and hard to bring down. We’ve seen it on film. He’s a big-play guy.”
For Hartselle, pass defense has been a strength. With a steady pass rush — coupled with sound coverage by Phillips, Garrett Fowler and company — the Tigers shut down Fort Payne’s potent passing attack last week, limiting the Wildcats to 125 yards and no touchdowns. Fort Payne’s longest gain was a 24-yard reception late in the second half.
But Godsey said that’s like comparing apples to oranges.
“Last week was about precision and execution,” he said. “This week is more about athleticism. Playing with discipline and having guys in the right spots is the biggest things. If you blow an assignment and aren’t where you’re supposed to be against these guys, they’ll make a big play.
“We’ve got a good plan, and we’ve had a good week of practice. Now it’s up to us to go out and execute it.”
Phillips said playing assignment football has been emphasized.
“It’s a trust issue,” he said. “You’ve got to trust other players to do their jobs. Everyone has a job to do, and if we play our assignments and do what we’re supposed to do, then we’ll be fine.
“The way our defense is playing, I feel like we’re starting to peak at the right time. And that’s what we wanted. This is a special time of year, and we know that if we don’t play our best, then it could be over. Not many programs get this opportunity, so we want to make the most of it and keep the season going.”
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