Saraland’s defense swarms to Enterprise running back Keion Dunlap in the Spartans’ 35-7 spring football victory. (John O’Dell/Call News)
This is an opinion piece
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
Saraland’s defense didn’t treat last week’s spring football game against Enterprise as a glorified practice. It was a platform from which to issue a warning.
“I think today, the effort was on another level,” defensive coordinator Brett West said after a 35-7 victory.
How good the Wildcats are could be debated. They lost five senior starters, including their quarterback, from a team which went 8-4 and advanced two rounds into the playoffs last season. Regardless, they’re a solid, well-coached 7A team.
Perhaps a better litmus test is what the Spartans’ offense — perhaps the best in the state regardless of class — endured this spring.
“You want to be the defense nobody wants to play,” Saraland coach Jeff Kelly said. “We scrimmaged against those suckers for eight days this spring and I know the guys we have offensively and I know the struggles we had against our defense.”
The ferocity of the Spartans’ defense could not be ignored in the spring game. Chin straps were jolted loose and helmets rolled on the turf of Spartan Stadium. Quarterbacks scrambled for the safety of the sideline. Running backs were driven back where they came from on fourth-and-1. An interception led to a touchdown. Gains (or losses) came in microscopic numbers: minus 1 yard, -2, -2, 2, 2, 1, -3, then -2, -2, -3 in another stretch, all in the first half. In the 27 seconds after the starters came off the field, Enterprise gained 68 yards.
Saraland’s defense looks like it wants to win another Blue Map, not just defend a state championship. There is a difference.
Draw your own inference from what Enterprise coach Ben Blackmon said afterward: “They are the defending champs and they’ve got 10 guys back on defense.” As Spanish Fort’s coach, Blackmon beat the Spartans six out of eight times and never took as lopsided a loss to Saraland as the one inflicted in the spring finale.
Interpretation: They’re supposed to be this good. Interpolation: They want to be as feared as the Spartans’ offense.
That offense has Mr. Football, Mr. Quarterback and Mr. Running Back — Ryan Williams, K.J. Lacey and Santae McWilliams, respectively.
The defense may have Mr. Roadblock, Mr. Socked and Mr. Clocked, among others.
“Our defense played outstanding and it’s only going to get better,” said McWilliams, who couldn’t say he relished facing the defense in the spring. “It was very difficult. It was very competitive. They made it tough on us. When you go through that in practice every day, they made us better.”
The linebackers were particularly impressive in the spring game. Isaih Bowie intercepted a screen pass which led to a touchdown. Cam York met running back Keion Dunlap in the hole on fourth-and-1 for no gain. Jamison Curtis and Cam Laffitte rattled bone marrow all the way up in the stands.
“When Jamison shows up, he’s in a bad mood,” Kelly said of last year’s leading tackler, who has offers from Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Missouri and Georgia Tech, among others. “He’s the enforcer over there.”
Junior noseguard Antonio Coleman, who has offers from Alabama, Tennessee, Penn State and North Carolina State, is looking forward to convening a linemen’s meeting with ends Chris Thompson and Jermaine Paramore in the backfield each week to see if a quarterback or running back can be split three ways.
“Our defense has developed the mentality to kill,” Coleman said. “We’re always going to have competition between us and being competitive is a key. We’ve got to stay uncomfortable and beat the man in front of you. We’ve got more work to do. We can’t cruise. We’ve got to stay uncomfortable.”
West made them that way amid the celebration for winning the Blue Map last year. He knew something must change defensively after the Spartans allowed 19½ points per game, the worst for the program since 2016 and the sixth-worst average in program history. It was also the highest average in a 15-game season in school history.
West knew the defense had to get better, if for no other reason than pride.
“I told them statistically it was one of the worst defenses we had,” West said. “Part of that is our offense scored a lot of points, not that we’re complaining. I challenged them and said we need to be a dominant defense. Our goal is to be the best in the state in 6A.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Saraland’s defense was gashed for 258 rushing yards by Spanish Fort, 236 by Theodore, 191 by Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa, 183 by Foley and 160 by Homewood.
“Last year, we gave up a ton of yards, mostly running the football,” Thompson said. “After today, it gets me kind of excited to see what we could have.”
The Wildcats scratched out just 43 yards and five first downs in a little less than a half, including 37 yards on the ground. The Spartans’ first defense shut out Enterprise’s first offense 21-0.
West, Blackmon, Kelly and just about everyone else who was polled noticed the defense’s speed.
“Our speed stuck out today, just across the board from the D-line to the back end, and it’s even better when you’re physical on top of that,” West said. “From January through the spring, they picked up things faster. The more comfortable you are pre-snap, you’re going to play faster.”
Moving Thompson — the team’s No. 2 tackler last year — from inside linebacker to defensive end may be the most beneficial change.
“After the championship game, I had the idea to do it,” Thompson said. “We were going to do it only on certain packages but I said I would do it all the time. You take somebody with the IQ of a linebacker and put him that close to the ball, it gives you more speed on the back end and more speed on the defensive line and you get more people to the quarterback faster.”
West said Thompson’s move has made the defense better.
“Chris putting his hand on the ground is probably the most important thing the fans can’t see,” West said. “The inside linebacker has got to know what everybody is doing and Chris is a very intelligent player. Having him closer to the ball, with his speed, really stood out today. It will make us a lot better defense.”
Laffitte was also moved to outside linebacker and Delvon Gulley moved to cornerback, switches Kelly said the players embraced.
“We had a successful year, obviously, but then we wanted to go back and blow it up and start from square one,” Kelly said.
Once reassembled, those pieces seem to fit just fine and might keep the main route on the Blue Map stopping at Spartan Drive.