If Burke County presented a challenge last week, then Statesboro is in for a wholly different beast when Liberty High School comes to town.
To add a different wrinkle to the challenge, the game has been moved from Friday at 7:30 p.m. to Saturday at 10 a.m. amid concerns of Tropical Storm Hermine rolling through Bulloch County this afternoon.
“We’re not anticipating any more bad weather come Saturday morning,” said Statesboro athletic director Chad Prosser. “Everything will be good to play then.”
Not be overshadowed by the impending storm is the reason many fans will wake up at eight in the morning on a Saturday to come see the game: Liberty County’s Richard LeCounte. Listed by many recruiting sites as a five-star prospect and number one high school safety in the county, LeCounte will put on a show wherever Liberty County is before he goes to Athens next season to play for Kirby Smart at Georgia.
All the hype is all real around LeCounte, and Statesboro head coach Steve Pennington says it backs up in the film room.
“All the attention he receives is deservedly so,” Pennington said. “He has a level of speed that can hit big plays on offense and prevent them for others. There aren’t many players who can get behind him for a touchdown.”
Lecounte does more than patrol the secondary for the Panthers. He’ll lineup at multiple positions on offense, as Liberty will look to give LeCounte the ball in any way possible. He also handles all return duties for Liberty County, as Bradwelll Institute found out the hard way last week when he took back a kickoff and a return for a touchdown.
“He is what he is,” said tight end Connor McBride. “Last time we played Liberty they had Raekwon McMillan who starts at Ohio State, and we found a way to work around him and Richard Lecounte. One person doesn’t make a team.”
According to Pennington, the key to neutralizing LeCounte will be setting up the offense with the run. Liberty’s athletic defense gifts them the ability to run a lot of man coverage, with defensive backs often lining head-up on their assignments. By running the ball, Statesboro will be able to take the four defensive backs out of the game and just focus on the front seven hoping to get a numbers advantage.
“We’re going to do everything we can to establish the run,” Pennington said. “If we run the ball while they’re in man coverage we take them out of the play. Lecounte’s best attributes are in coverage, so it only makes sense we take that away.”
Running the ball presents its own challenge though. Last week against Burke County, Statesboro only managed 2.9 yards per carry on 26 carries. The Blue Devil’s were highly ineffective on the ground, especially up the middle with feature back Tupac Lanier only gaining 32 yards on 12 carries. But Pennington isn’t wavering on his philosophy, insisting against this particular defense it will give Statesboro an advantage.
“We will have to keep them honest by running the football,” Pennington said. “If we can get three yards here or four yards there, maybe we can catch some of those defensive backs sleeping and open up the play action pass.”
Another factor standing in the way of Statesboro running first philosophy is the size of Liberty County’s defensive line. The Panthers average around 250 a body on their defensive front, which soundly outweighs Statesboro’s offensive line who body up around 220 a man. Despite the Blue Devil’s struggle to block for the run, where they surprised last week was in pass blocking. On 19 passes, quarterback Davis Wiggins was never sacked and only pressured once.
Pennington said the play action pass will be key in generating big plays against Liberty County, another thing Statesboro struggled to do last week. The Blue Devil’s only broke two passes of more than 10 yards, and even still the yards after catch were insignificant on those passes. If Wiggins can find some more dependable play from his receivers (four drops last week), the big play is possible.
“We’ve brought in some new route combos that we think can really open up the passing game,” said wide receiver Wright Rockett. “Even more so than last week.”
Defensively, Statesboro will have to recoup from last week after giving up a bag full of big plays to Burke County. The Bears offense hit 10 plays that amassed 262 yards last week, masking an offense that for the most part underperformed in many facets. Pennington emphasized tackling as the biggest key to containing Liberty’s offense and not allowing their speed to get into the third level.
“Every person has an area they’re responsible for,” Pennington said. “Last week we had some plays where we didn’t fit well in the gap schemes. Motion distracted us last week too, but we have to stay focused on our keys and reads.”
It seems like Statesboro has a lot going against them in the big picture, but in actuality it really boils down to one thing: explosiveness. Last week Statesboro was even in turnover margin, held Burke County in bad field position and had great field position themselves. The lack of big plays and the inability to prevent big plays are the only thing that truly hurt Statesboro in their 28-17 loss opening week.
If the Blue Devil’s can tighten the screws on defense and find a way to generate a couple of big plays with the added element of an early morning game, Statesboro has the potential to pull an upset in a bizarre home opener. However, just know wherever the ball is for Statesboro -- one of the best high school players in the country will be there for Liberty County as well.