The special teams of Statesboro have been more than just special this season. They’ve been downright invaluable.
This was most evident last Friday as Blue Devil kicker Caleb Brown split the uprights from 27 yards out in the closing seconds of the game to clinch a 24-21 comeback win over Tri-Cities and send Statesboro to the second round of the GHSA Class AAAA state playoffs.
“It’s always good to know that you have a kicking game that can be depended on,” said SHS coach Steve Pennington. “Caleb was able to stay focused, even when the pressure was really magnified, and get the job done.”
As the playoffs wear on and the remaining teams grow fewer, the importance of special teams becomes even more evident. Not only can a do-or-die playoff game be turned in favor of one team or another with a big kick or a long return, but the talent of all teams still in contention makes it more likely that games will remain close into the late stages, just waiting for a big momentum swing.
“Everything can change with just one play,” said Pennington. “Special teams allows you — especially early in the game — to really set the tone.”
That was exactly what the Devils did last week. Dequan Daniels returned the opening kickoff to nearly midfield and gave the SHS offense a short field, which it used to grab an early lead.
Brown’s game-winning kick was certainly the play of the game, but other special teams moments throughout the contest also set Statesboro up for success.
The Blue Devils’ coverage team held Tri-Cities inside of its own 35 on all five of its kickoffs and punter Alan Rodriguez twice pinned the Bulldogs inside their own 20.
“There are a lot of little plays that go unnoticed,” said Pennington. “Often times, those are plays in the kicking game. A good example was the punt before we tied the game. Michael Bowling made a fair catch in a tight spot. If he lets that ball hit the ground, we probably have to start at the 3 or 4 yard line. Instead, he made a catch with defenders all around him and gave us some room to work.”
With the brand of football that Statesboro is known for playing, it comes as little surprise that it is able to take advantage of big plays in the kicking game.
The Devils put a lot of emphasis on being the more physical team every week. They bring the fight to the opponent on defense and the SHS offense is relentless in pounding away with its running game.
The same mentality prevails on special teams as the Devils look to make a statement at every opportunity.
“We hold special teams in high regard,” said Pennington. “It takes some selflessness to play special teams well. You’re going at full speed and there are a lot of big collisions. That’s how we like to play though, so our focus is the same on kickoffs as it is on offense or defense.”
Of course, it’s the preparation that makes everything work on game day.
Practices are always high intensity and Pennington credits that fact for the Devils’ ability to wear down opponents and be the better team in the fourth quarter.
“We like the competitive atmosphere that we have on this team,” said Pennington. “That also translates to the kicking game. We like the job that Caleb does for us, but Alan is a very good kicker. The two of them push each other everyday, which makes both grow stronger.”
All facets of the Blue Devils will have to show up ready to play if the want to continue its run towards a state title. Statesboro welcomes Griffin — a semifinalist in 2009 — to Womack Field Friday at 7:30 p.m. with a quarterfinal spot on the line.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.