Devils defense hangs tough in season-opening win

ECHS’ Malik Brown makes the only touchdown of the game.

Rico Jackson’s Escambia County High coaching career got off to a successful start last Friday (September 1) when the Blue Devils offense managed a third-period touchdown and a scrappy defensive unit made the points stand up for an 8-0 win over Class 5A Wilcox Central.

The win, reportedly ECHS’s first victory on its home turf since 2015, was marred by flag-happy officials who penalized the Devils 17 times for 130 yards, including 12 flags for 95 yards in the first half, and the visiting Jaguars 13 times for 113 yards.

“It wasn’t the prettiest game by far, but we’ll take a win,” Jackson said. “It’s always good to win at home and to get that first ‘W.’ I feel like we lost focus at time in the first half. We kept shooting ourselves in the foot when we didn’t have to.”

The Devils moved into Wilcox Central territory three times in the first half but couldn’t light up the scoreboard.

The team’s opening drive carried to the Jaguars 21 but ended with a fourth-down sack of quarterback Jordaun Patterson. Another offensive series came to a halt after 2 quick first downs when a fumble was recovered by the visitors.

Unofficial stats showed that the ECHS ground game accounted for 259 yards on the night, but penalties erased more than half that total. The team’s passing game never clicked, due in large part to a fierce pass rush that nailed Patterson, who wound up with a 3-for-10 night that accounted for just 23 yards, behind the line 4 times.

“Our ground game wasn’t bad,” Jackson agreed. “We need to clean up our passing game and make throws when we need to make throws. We also had some protection issues that we need to clean up. I felt like our kids played hard, but we still left a lot of points on the field.”

Ironically, the game’s only points came late in the third period, when a Patterson pass from the 16-yard line was grabbed by Malik Brown, who maintained concentration and plucked the ball from the air after it was tipped by a defender.

The score came on a fourth-down snap, 3 plays after Ja’Maya Frye’s 5-yard scoring run was negated by a holding penalty. Lue Williams carried the ball off right tackle for the 2-point conversion that wrapped up the night’s scoring.

Unofficially, Frye carried the ball 9 times for 87 net yards, including a pair of 18-yard bursts, to lead the ECHS offensive output. William Bradley rushed for 34 yards and Demetrion Barnes picked up 21.

But it was on the defensive side of the ball where the Blue Devils were most effective. The Jaguars spent most of the first half in ECHS territory as 4 of 6 offensive series carried past midfield before either a key defensive play or a Wilcox Central mistake put the skids to each drive.

“I was really proud of our defense; they played really hard,” said Jackson. “Any time you get a shutout, it’s big. Now we have to get our offense up to par.”

The ECHS coach said he wasn’t even worried when, as the game clock wound down, the Jaguars quickly picked up 35 yards to threaten a score before time ran out with the ball on the ECHS 12.

“I really wasn’t worried,” he said. “We always want to make plays when we have the opportunity. We had a chance to make some plays there at the end and didn’t, and (Wilcox Central) capitalized on that. Wilcox was big and physical, but we were physical at times as well.”

The bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort was led by Deondre Freeman, who had 10 tackles, including 3 sacks, and forced several hurried passes.

“I thought Deondre had an excellent game,” said the ECHS coach. “I was really pleased with him and pleased with the defense in general. I thought they played a really clean game against a big group with a good quarterback.”

The next test for the Blue Devils will come on Friday when they travel to Mobile to take on region foe UMS-Wright, which entered the season ranked second among Class 4A schools and has wins over Mary G. Montgomery (35-6) and Charles Henderson (27-22 last week).

Jackson doesn’t think his team will be swayed by its opponent’s standing and its reputation as one of Class 4A’s powerhouses.

“We just want to focus on getting better this week and getting ready for a good UMS team,” he said. “We’re confident about the UMS game, and we’re going to have a great game plan. They are just like any other team on our schedule. We’re not going to back down.

“We’re just taking it one game at a time. I expect us to go down there and win, not play for respect or a moral victory.”

News photo by Tom Tschida