By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Heading into Friday’s marquee matchup against Muscle Shoals, no one has to tell Cullman’s players, coaches or fans how dominant the top-ranked Trojans have become.
If they happened to be part of the crowd that traveled north for the Bearcats’ playoff game in Muscle Shoals last year, then they’ve already witnessed it themselves.
After the Black and Gold defense capitalized on a Richard Poston strip to take an early lead, the Trojans unleashed their unbelievable team speed, scoring 35 unanswered points and keeping Cullman out of the end zone the rest of the night to complete the blowout.
At one point in that second-round contest, Muscle Shoals’ five-star defensive lineman Dee Liner broke free on the right edge, leaving a clear path between him and Zac Crocker. The 6-foot-2, 274-pound Auburn commit needed no time to close the gap, blindsiding the Bearcat quarterback with a flying squirrel-style tackle that might’ve hurt spectators just as much to watch as it did the signal-caller to experience.
Crocker would beg to differ.
“I still have some neck pains from it,” the senior joked in reference to the vicious hit. “That’s something I’m going to have to watch out for.”
With nine starters back from 2011’s breakthrough unit, Liner is far from the Trojans’ only threat on D.
Outside linebacker Blake Logan is capable of wreaking havoc in the backfield, while Levi Fell has had an affinity for interceptions at cornerback. Add other lineman taking advantage of the increased attention Liner requires to the equation, and you get a defense that’s allowed slightly less than five points per game through eight weeks.
One player who will shoulder the responsibility of trying to fend off Muscle Shoals’ talented defensive line is Cullman’s Jordan Van Gundy. The 6-foot-2, 315-pound senior said he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“I’ve just got to make sure I’m always doing my job, always try to stay low and play the best I can,” he said.
Crocker never has any problems placing his trust in his line, and he said that won’t change this week, even with “a big monster on the line” breathing down his neck. The extremely accurate passer added the faith he has in himself and his fellow players has grown exponentially since last year’s disappointing end to the season.
“It was a lot different than it is now because I have a year under my belt,” Crocker said. “I feel like I have more confidence in my teammates, too, because I’ve played with them for more than one year.”
After throwing three interceptions in last week’s road victory versus Athens, the quarterback acknowledged the team must take better care of the football and limit turnovers when the Trojans make their way to Oliver Woodard Stadium.
“We’ve got to play our game of football,” Crocker said.
All most folks want to talk about when it comes to Muscle Shoals is its out-of-this-world D, but it’s not exactly safe to overlook this opponent’s explosive offense, either.
The Trojans are scoring just over 41 points per game. Their lowest output this year came in a last-second 28-21 victory over then-No. 4 Hartselle.
Safety Trey Moon, who snagged his third interception last Friday, said the Bearcats are gearing up for Muscle Shoals’ Wing-T offense, which is anchored by speedsters Tyler Jackson and Jamarcus Nance at running back.
“We’ve got to focus on keeping them inside and make sure everybody is on the ball,” the junior said.
Only one team has given the Trojans a game this season, and that was Hartselle in the aforementioned squeaker. Cullman came up just short in the waning moments against the arch-rival Tigers in Week 4, giving Crocker every reason to believe the Bearcats can go toe to toe with Class 5A’s No. 1 squad.
“They aren’t unbeatable,” he said. “Hartselle had them to the very end, to the ropes, right there. That was the same thing with us and Hartselle. I feel like we’re better than Hartselle, and I know we should’ve won that game. I think we have a great chance of winning this one.”
If Cullman manages to pull off the upset and Hartselle dispatches Russellville on Friday, there would be a three-way tie atop the Region 8 standings. If not, the Bearcats would miss out on their first region title since 2009, as well as a shot to host a first-round playoff game if the No. 8 Tigers beat Russellville.
With so much on the line, Van Gundy is ready to bring everything he’s got.
“We haven’t had a region championship in three years,” he said. “It’d be nice to get back to there. Muscle Shoals is great. They’re No. 1. It’d be great to beat a team like that.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.