HARKER HEIGHTS — Harker Heights has been a pipeline of talent for the University of Texas in recent years.
Now the Knights’ football coaching staff is hoping it flows both ways.
With 10 returning lettermen, including eight starters coming back, the Knights offense has decided to take a page out of the Longhorns’ playbook and picking up the pace.
Working in hand signals and a rapid, up-tempo attack on offense — with a lot of the same nuances that new Texas co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite is implementing — and a more traditional front on defense, Harker Heights has plenty to show off during its spring scrimmage today at 6 p.m. at the school.
Having sent three players to Texas in the last two years — offensive tackle Camrhon Hughes last year and center Darius James and linebacker Naashon Hughes this summer — the Knights are counting on an experienced group of returners on offense to carry the load this coming season, highlighted by sophomore quarterback Troy Smith and junior tailback Marcus Anderson II.
Smith, who is entrenched as the starting quarterback after battling Damion May early into the season last year, is excited by the new offensive philosophy.
“I like it — I love it actually — it’s like a video game to me,” said Smith, who threw for 638 yards with three touchdowns to eight interceptions last season. “It’s just (a) fast tempo and I like having all the responsibility on my shoulders.”
The offensive line, while not as big with the graduation of James, is talented, including 290-pound junior center Nigel Leota, guards Joe Alaniz and Dre’Quan Myers and tackles Kyle Key and Chris Hughes. Hughes is the younger brother of Camrhon and Naashon, and at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds as a freshman could eventually be bigger than both his older brothers.
The experience and talent has the Heights players raising their own expectations coming off the program’s first playoff appearance since 2006, where the Knights were destroyed by second-ranked DeSoto, 62-15, in their Division I-5A bi-district game Nov. 17.
“I expect a lot from the offense myself, so I know the fans are expecting a lot — but that’s how it should be,” Smith said. “Whenever you have all your starters coming back, you shouldn’t expect anything but the best that we can put out there. We’re practicing hard so we can play hard, and hopefully we’ll maintain that.”
Although the score got out of hand, it was the offensive miscues — false start penalties and three interceptions — that led directly to the lopsided nature of the game. Heights’ offensive ineptness also included rushing for minus-1 yard on 20 second-half carries, finishing with just 243 total yards of offense for a 4.19 yards-per-play average.
But it’s that experience, when the Eagles racked up nearly 500 yards of offense on 72 total plays thanks to an unrelenting up-tempo approach that seems to have sparked a “if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them” mentality offensively.
Defensivley, the Knights are also making adjustments, second-year defensive coordinator Ty Oppermann will be going back to a four-man front with talented sophomore defensive end Justin Ellis coming off the edge and junior Cody Kipp helping plug up the middle.
Linebackers appears to be the weakest point, with only middle Wilson Owens returning, but the secondary should allow whoever fills the outside ‘backer positions to roam free with junior cornerbacks Damaria Moon and Darius Mitchell able to play man-to-man with the best of the district’s receivers.
Moon is a converted receiver himself, flipping from offense to defense late last season when injuries depleted the roster, while Mitchell is a burner, finishing second in the 100 meters at the District 8-5A meet in 10.71 seconds.
Junior safety Quincy McKennon will slide into the tackle-friendly free safety position held by graduating 5A All-State second-team defensive back Tyrel Stokes.