A year ago, the East Central football team used a lethal offense to bowl over opponents on the way to a Class 4A South State title.
In 2018, the Hornets (5-0, 1-0) are thriving due to a suffocating and opportunistic defense.
The Sun Herald’s No. 1 squad pulled away in the second half for a 36-12 victory at Moss Point in the Region 8-4A opener for both squads.
The East Central defense provided a pair of touchdowns and a safety to set the tone as the offense struggled to get going against a tough Moss Point front seven.
“If offense won championships, we’d be in a bind. Thank God defense does,” East Central coach Seth Smith told his players after the game.
Linebacker Avery White is the senior leader of the East Central defense, but he’s just one piece to what has become likely South Mississippi’s best linebacking corps.
White is a 6-foot-4, 190-pound athlete who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. He holds scholarship offers from Southern Miss and South Alabama after registering 202 tackles as a junior.
He’s joined at linebacker by junior Zach Jones, who stands 6-3, 215 pounds and has a 40-yard dash time of 4.6 seconds.
“They’re really good, quick and fast,” East Central junior quarterback Will young said. “Both of them could play any position if they wanted to. Zach played wingback last year so he can run the ball too.”
Along with his prototypical size for a linebacker, Jones showed Friday that he also has the mental makeup to get the job done. He was in perfect position to pull in a pair of interceptions Friday night.
His first pick of the night came when he stepped in the path of a pass from Moss Point quarterback Ruben Lee and dashed 28 yards to the end zone to give the Hornets a 16-6 lead early in the third quarter.
“I just read the slant and I saw it coming,” Jones said. “I saw it before it even happened. I caught it and took it in the end zone. It was an awesome feeling.”
White led East Central with 13 tackles, including four for lost yardage. Jones added nine tackles.
White and Jones man in the inside linebacker spots while a pair of seniors, Jarrett Goff and Branson Davis work on the outside.
In East Central’s 4-4-3 scheme, senior Joel Reiser, who had 11 tackles and two sacks, and junior Avery Scott are the starting defensive ends. Senior Bryce Eubanks and junior Trace Higginbotham are the two defensive tackles.
Higginbotham was the man who provided the safety for East Central when a bad snap sent Lee into his own end zone, allowing Higginbotham to chase him down for the sack to make it 2-0 at the 7:20 mark of the first quarter.
Senior cornerback Trenton Baldock, who blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown Friday night, leads the secondary. The other corner is senior Hunter Zwick and junior Tyler Thornton replaced Andrew Seward at safety.
A year ago, East Central was occasionally vulnerable to the big pass play.
On Friday, Moss Point’s lone passing touchdown came on the final play of game in garbage time as Lee completed six of 21 passes for 87 yards.
“Both of our corners are back after playing 14 games,” Smith said. “We have a lot of experience. Anytime you have that, you feel like you have a chance.”
Defensive coordinator David Hudson has done a good job of piecing it all together on that side of the ball and he won’t settle for mental mistakes. When Moss Point scored on the game’s final play, he quickly sought out the player who lost focus on the play.
“I think the defense is as good as any we’ve had here and they can keep getting better,” Smith said. “I’m proud of the defense and the way they played. When our (first string) is out there, I feel like we can compete against anybody.”
Young led the East Central offense with 11 rushes for 80 yards and also had a 35-yard touchdown toss to Sam Wall in the fourth quarter.
Moss Point, which dropped to 1-6, will now enter a much more favorable stretch of the schedule after finishing off a seven-game stretch that included six teams with at least four wins – Gautier, Class 5A No. 1 Hattiesburg, Spanish Fort (Ala.), Wayne County, Greene County and Class 4A No. 1 East Central.
“Especially in 4A, I don’t think anybody has played a tougher schedule,” Moss Point coach Eugene Harmon said. “We’re just trying to keep their heads up. The guys understand the process and understand what we’re doing. As long as you keep guys motivated, working hard, that’s the most important thing.”
Senior running back Tytus Miles led Moss Point with 19 carries for 81 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown.
Moss Point will host Vancleave on Friday for homecoming while East Central will host Pass Christian.
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