Throw the classifications out the window.
When 5A Cullman’s players and coaches look at Madison Academy, the non-region opponent they’ll travel to play Friday, they see anything but a 3A ballclub. Instead, the Bearcats see a Mustang squad with more next-level talent than most that is capable of hanging with any challenger thrown their way.
“They’re not your typical 3A by any stretch of the imagination,” Black and Gold coach Mark Britton said. “Athletically, they’re by far the best team we’ve faced. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us on the road.”
Madison Academy has proven to so far be unbeatable in 2013, with reigning 2A champ Tanner (48-6), Clements (49-0), and 3A powers Lauderdale County (45-6) and Deshler (45-14) unable to even keep it close.
The Mustangs were beatable in 2012, however, but only by one team — Cullman, which handed the eventual 3A state champions their only loss of the year in the form of a 42-21 final at Oliver Woodard Stadium.
Britton sees the 14-game run Madison Academy has taken off on since as nothing short of spectacular.
“They’re not doing it with smoke and mirrors,” he said. “They’re playing power football. Their offensive line’s rolling people out. They’re controlling the line of scrimmage. And then on defense, they’re doing a great job of forcing turnovers and putting you in third-and-long situations. I don’t see many people in 3A beating this bunch.”
Of all the stars the Mustangs have at their disposal, Kerryon Johnson is by far the biggest. The running back and safety has already received offers from Alabama, Auburn and numerous other SEC schools — and for good reason.
Johnson finished third in last year’s Mr. Football voting and has only ramped up his level of play through four games this season to join the conversation once again. He had 123 rushing yards and two touchdowns (32 and 87 yards) on five carries, as well as 126 receiving yards and another two scores (62 and 61 yards) on five catches in the first half of Madison Academy’s blowout of Lauderdale County. Johnson followed up that performance with more of a defensive gem last week versus Deshler, returning an interception 73 yards for a touchdown to accompany a six-point play through the air on offense.
Johnson was only called on for nine carries in the 2012 meeting versus Cullman but piled on 117 rushing yards and a touchdown in limited action as the contest wore on.
“He’s clearly the best athlete when he’s out there — and not just by a little bit,” Britton said. “He’s just able to do things that you can’t coach. When you hear about SEC coaches visiting and looking at these guys, they’ve got to be pretty special. I don’t think you ever stop an athlete like that. You just try to hopefully limit the amount of damage he can do to you.”
As if Johnson weren’t enough, Britton is well aware of all the other playmakers the Mustangs can turn to on any given play. The longtime Black and Gold coach specifically pointed to Malik Miller, another running back piquing SEC interest, and quarterback Blake Coward as a pair not to be overlooked.
“Even though they have a very special athlete, he’s not their only weapon,” Britton said of Johnson. “We just can’t put a double team on everybody they’ve got out there. We’re going to have to play good ball.”
Interviews following top-ranked Madison Academy’s lopsided victory over Deshler last week quickly turned to now-No. 10 Cullman (4-0, 3-0 in 5A, Region 8). In one with the Florence TimesDaily, Mustang (4-0, 3-0 in 3A, Region 8) coach Eric Cohu admitted “we could not get a rhythm last year against Cullman in their hurry-up offense.”
Unfortunately for Cohu and Co. — but not for the Bearcats — Britton doesn’t plan to slow anything down this time around. With players like quarterback Tyler Glenn, running back Garrett Crider, wide receiver Mason Jones and a steadily improving offensive line, the Black and Gold offense has been efficient as usual throughout the majority of the team’s first four games.
“We call it NASCAR. That’s our kind of speed-up-and-move-things, up-tempo offense,” Britton said. “It probably gives some defensive coordinators some fits trying to get in all your calls, but our kids do a good job with that. Here we are fifth week of the season, we ought to be able to communicate and be able to move at a pretty good pace.”
And that quick pace goes for the entire ballgame, not just the first and second quarters. The style of play could come in handy late for Cullman against the Mustangs, who’s only 3A restriction seems to be their depth. Madison Academy has its fair share of two-way players, while the Bearcats, who started the season with 87 kids on the roster, generally keep their players on one side of the ball.
“I think man for man, they’ve probably got better athletes than us,” Britton said. “What we’re going to have to hope for is to keep it close in the first half and hopefully we can wear them down and fatigue can be a factor in the second half.
“If we can stay seven-14 points at halftime, then I think we’ll have an opportunity to win in the second half. That’s just kind of what we do. We don’t really panic at halftime. We try to use our conditioning.”
Britton sees a lot of difference’s in this year’s contest than the last. Miller is healthy for the rematch, the Mustangs’ senior-heavy defense has had another season to develop and Madison Academy as a whole has played a whopping 30 ballgames over the last two campaigns considering its back-to-back berths in the state final.
“That’s 10 more than most people get to play, so these kids are very seasoned in high-stress, high-level games,” Britton said. “They’re not going to be intimidated by us coming in there Game 5.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.