The Austin Black Bears are off to a 3-0 start and a major reason for the success is the ability to make big plays.

The Black Bears will look to make it 4-0 tonight when Austin hosts Gadsden City in a Class 7A, Region 4 game.

Austin has outscored Hartselle, Decatur and Florence by a combined 78 points (131-53). The offense has done it on the ground and through the air with several different playmakers. The defense has even produced points.

In last Friday’s 30-25 win at Florence, two of the big playmakers were senior defensive end Awysum Harris and junior receiver Tre Shackelford.

Harris’ 25-yard interception return in the first half was Austin’s first touchdown of the game. Shackelford had two touchdown catches in the fourth quarter. His 43-yarder with 37 seconds left was the game-winner.

“We have a lot of guys who can get the ball in the end zone,” Shackelford said. “You never know when your opportunity will come. You have to be ready.”

Making big plays is bound to be in the DNA of Harris and Shackelford. The ability runs in both families.

Harris is the half-brother of former Austin running back Asa Martin, who is now at the University of Memphis. The former All-State selection was on the Austin sideline Aug. 30 for the Decatur game.

“I’ve told him that if he wants to improve his chances of playing for a really good team in college, he needs to start making some big plays,” Martin said that night.

After playing linebacker for Austin last season, Harris moved in the spring to Rome, Georgia, to live with his father. He returned to Austin in August. He now plays defensive end and leads the team in tackles with 30. Last Friday, he didn’t miss an opportunity to make a big play.

“They had a tight end on my side and a running back coming out of the backfield,” Harris said. “The tight end was supposed to go outside and clear out for the running back. I kept the tight end from getting outside. I was between the tight end and the running back and the quarterback threw the ball right to me.”

The play was a huge momentum lift at the time and proved to be even bigger with Austin winning by five points.

The big-play ability DNA runs deep in Shackelford’s family. His cousin D.T. was a star linebacker for the Black and Bears, who later played at Ole Miss. Tre’s father, James, was an Austin running back in the 1980s. James’ cousin, George Scruggs, also starred for the Black Bears at running back. He died in an automobile accident in 1986 while a member of the Alabama football team.

Shackelford’s cousins Steve, Craig, Stanley, Darnell and Fred all played for Decatur. Craig later played at Southern Miss.

Tre was a running back in his younger days, but his leaping ability and long arms make the 6-foot-1, 180 pound speedster ideal for wide receiver in today's game.

“If I can just get the ball close to him, I know he’ll out jump everybody to get it,” Austin quarterback Quincy Crittendon said.

Coaches call the deep throws into one-on-one coverage 50-50 balls. Both receiver and defender have a 50-50 chance to catch the football. Shackelford is so good at it that when the ball is thrown his way it’s more like 75-25 in his favor.

Last Friday’s game-winner with 37 seconds left covered 43 yards. Shackelford made the catch in the end zone while the defender was grabbing him for a pass interference call.

“The (defensive) back on my side got hurt during the game,” Shackelford said. “They had a freshman on me in the fourth quarter. I was supposed to run a double move to get by him, but I just ran by him. When I got by him, I knew it was going to be a touchdown. Quincy always makes a great throw on that play.”

Shackelford has made 11 catches this season and four have been for touchdowns.

It was a clutch win on the road for the Black Bears and a giant step forward in region play.

“Winning a game like that where we had to come back from being down should give us a lot of confidence for the rest of the season,” Harris said. “Beating a team by a lot of points is good, but winning a close game on the road is really big.”

 david.elwell@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2395. Twitter @DD_DavidElwell.

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