MAJOR CHALLENGE: After moving past McKinney in opener, Temple hosts star QB Lagway, explosive Willis
BLUE-FRONT, WHITE-BACK WALL: Linebacker Taurean York (5), strong safety Josh Donoso (right) and end Kevin Stockton combine to tackle McKinney running back Bryan Jackson on fourth down for a turnover on downs during Temple's season-opening 17-10 victory over the Lions last Saturday afternoon at McKinney ISD Stadium. Temple's defense will face another major test when it battles junior quarterback Derek Lagway and the explosive Willis Wildkats (1-0) in the home opener at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. Willis blasted Bryan Rudder 73-14 a week ago behind Lagway's six touchdown passes. (Photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
When Temple’s football team played its season-opening game at McKinney last Saturday afternoon, the main challenge for the Wildcats’ largely inexperienced defense was containing Bryan Jackson, the Lions’ standout junior running back.
And Temple’s defenders proved to be up to the task, limiting the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Jackson – a four-star national recruit with dozens of scholarship offers – to 102 yards and a short touchdown on 25 carries as the Wildcats earned a gritty, hard-hitting 17-10 victory at McKinney ISD Stadium.
Both seventh-year head coach Scott Stewart and defensive coordinator Dexter Knox praised the steady effort and get-it-done mentality of Temple’s defense, which put seven new starters on the field in the lightning-delayed duel.
“I thought our kids played hard. They’re gutsy kids. I’ll take the Temple Wildcats over anybody,” said Stewart, who improved to 5-2 in season openers. “We’ve got some kids who can play. There’s not a whole lot of big kids. We don’t look the same as some other teams, especially last Saturday. They had a 6-1, 230-pound running back and a big offensive line. I was just real proud of how hard we played.”
Said Knox, whose defense limited McKinney to 90 passing yards and 233 total yards: “We found a way to get off the field, which is important early in the season. I was a little worried about tackling, because they’re a power running team with a 230-pound running back and we’ve got 150-pound defensive backs trying to tackle him. Of course we messed up some stuff, but the kids played hard, we made adjustments and we were able to hold up. It was fun to watch. It gave them some added confidence that they could do it and hang.”
Temple got 11 tackles (four for loss) from Baylor commitment and fourth-year starting linebacker Taurean York, 10 stops from senior end and new starter Kevin Stockton and seven from sophomore safety O’Ryan Peoples in his varsity debut. Senior linebacker Jaylon Jackson made six tackles and New Mexico State-committed senior cornerback Naeten Mitchell added five, several of the punishing variety.
But with one less day than normal to prepare for their next game, the Wildcats didn’t have very long to savor – and try to physically recover from – the hard-earned win in McKinney.
Especially not with Vince Young Jr. coming to town on Friday night.
OK, so it’s not actually Vince Young, the star quarterback who led the Texas Longhorns' unbeaten 2005 team to the national championship, or Vince Young Jr. who will be playing for Willis (1-0) against No. 25-ranked Temple in the Wildcats’ home opener at 7:30 p.m. Friday on the new artificial turf surface of Bob McQueen Field on parent night at Wildcat Stadium.
However, the way that defense-oriented guys such as Stewart and Knox view things, Willis junior quarterback Derek “DJ” Lagway might as well be Vince Young Jr. From everything they’ve seen, heard and read about the Wildkats’ 6-4, 230-pound QB who’s ranked among the nation’s best in the 2024 recruiting class, the four-star recruit really is that talented and skilled.
All Lagway did in Willis’ 73-14 home thrashing of overmatched Bryan Rudder last Friday was complete 21 of 28 passes for 343 yards and six touchdowns with an interception and run seven times for 102 yards and one TD.
“He’s VYJ – Vince Young Jr. He’s 6-4 and 230. He looks like Vince Young. He runs like Vince Young. He plays the game like Vince Young did,” Stewart said in his office Tuesday afternoon as he showed several of Lagway’s best plays – and there were plenty to choose from – against Rudder on his computer screen. “He’s good and mobile. Apparently this kid plays baseball and throws in the mid-90s with those levers.
“He stands above everybody. I saw him at the 7-on-7 state championship (in July). Lagway can eat corn off the top of my head and I’m 6-2. He’s 6-4 barefoot.”
Lagway’s many scholarship offers include Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Louisiana State, Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Tech, Texas Christian, Oklahoma, Oregon and Southern California.
A year ago, Temple’s season opener was at home against top-ranked Austin Westlake, which beat the Wildcats 54-13 and went undefeated en route to its third consecutive Class 6A state championship. The Chaparrals’ star dual-threat quarterback was Cade Klubnik, who was rated the country’s best senior QB and now plays at Clemson.
In the second round of the 6A Division II playoffs, the Wildcats for the second straight year ran into Rockwall-Heath quarterback Josh Hoover, a prolific pocket passer who’s now playing for Texas Christian.
Now, Temple’s defense is preparing to test itself against an explosive Willis attack paced by the strong-armed and mobile Lagway, who’s the No. 21 overall recruit and the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2024 ESPN Junior 300. By the way, McKinney’s running back Jackson is ranked No. 164 on that list.
The highlight reel against Rudder shows Lagway continually hitting receivers in stride when he has time to throw and using long, smooth strides to carve through multiple would-be tacklers after he decides to leave the pocket.
“He can take it in from distance,” Knox said of Lagway’s ability as a runner in a Willis offense that often employs five receivers and zero running backs.
One play in particular caught Stewart’s attention. From the Rudder 22-yard line, Lagway grabbed a low shotgun snap, stepped forward to elude some backfield pressure and while on the move and throwing off the wrong foot fired an on-target pass to a slanting receiver – who had one step of separation from his defender – inside the 5 for a did-you-see-that touchdown.
“He threw the ball 25 yards on a rope off the wrong foot. The ball’s 6 feet off the ground the entire time,” Stewart said, shaking his head and chuckling. “He’s great at finding open people. He’s really effective in the pocket, and he moves the pocket a little bit. Some quarterbacks, when they see any pressure they just run for the hills. He’s very patient and keeps his eyes downfield. Of course, he can see Scott and White (Hospital) from here.
“Klubnik is probably the best field general that I’ve ever been around. I knew what Hoover was running. You’ve got to be savvy back there to go through your read progression, and he did that flawlessly," Stewart added. "(Lagway’s) different. This kid’s a combination. He spins the ball. The receivers are really fast. They’re running their routes and if Lagway takes a step this way, they all (take off in different directions). They do a great job on the scramble drill. He probably extends plays as well as anyone I’ve seen.”
Having seen plenty of Lagway and the potent Willis offense on video, Knox knows that Temple’s defense must put together a smart gameplan and execute it well – and likely make intelligent in-game adjustments – to have a chance to slow down the dangerous Lagway and first-year head coach Trent Miller's Wildkats, who begin District 13-6A play next Friday against New Caney.
“Man, I always say with the best quarterbacks that I don’t know if you can confuse them. You’ve got to send different looks at them and change it up. You can’t let (Lagway) know where you’re going to be,” Knox said Thursday. “You can’t lay up. They’re too good. They’ll march up and down the field if you let them.
“It’s a complete 180 from what we saw against McKinney. It looks like 7-on-7 or basketball on grass. They pitch it out there quick and throw it all over the yard. Now we have to play from sideline to sideline. Our DBs have to cover and make tackles in space. We’ve got our hands full. It’ll be fun.”
Asked whether applying pressure on Lagway – whose father, also named Derek Lagway, was a standout running back at Baylor – and hitting him early might be a sound strategy to decrease his effectiveness, Stewart again offered a humorous response.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him get hit cleanly,” he said with a laugh, noting that the Willis offensive line is full of players who stand at least 6-2 and weigh 265-plus pounds. “These guys are good enough that if you rush three, he’ll sit back there and pat the ball. He’s got a quick release for a long kid.
“They’re very, very athletic. (The receivers are) waterbugs with a lot of speed. They pass protect 90 percent of the time. They run the ball, but it all goes through Lagway.”
Stewart said that because Temple’s defense lacks significant varsity experience other than seniors York, Jackson and Mitchell and junior nose tackle Ayden Brown, these Wildcats probably are more inclined to execute their base scheme as well as possible and less likely to try to throw extravagant wrinkles at Lagway.
“We’ll play as many games (with him) as we can play, but there’s a line there where when do you start confusing your own kids? It’s Game 2 for a lot of those guys. If you can’t function at a high level, you can’t half-step against this guy,” Stewart explained. “You can’t be thinking and moving at the same time. It’s got to be read and react. A guy like Lagway, you can confuse yourself sometimes while you’re trying to confuse him.
“So I think there’s a little bit of that gamesmanship and stategy, but I’d rather do something really, really well and make him beat us than giving him stuff.”
Last season, Lagway passed for 1,579 yards and 17 touchdowns with two interceptions and rushed for a team-best 710 yards and six TDs for 6-6 Willis. In the last of head coach Michael Wall’s four seasons, the Wildkats upset Spring Dekaney 22-14 in the bi-district round of the 6A Division II playoffs for their first postseason win since 2011. Willis lost 37-7 in the area round to eventual state semifinalist Tomball, which eliminated Rockwall-Heath a week after the Hawks defeated Temple 45-33.
In Miller’s debut game at the helm in Willis, junior receiver Debraun Hampton led the Wildkats against Rudder with six catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns, and sophomore running back Terri Lawrence had three receptions for 67 yards and two TDs along with rushing for 58 yards and a TD. Daylion Robinson caught three passes for 110 yards and a touchdown and fellow sophomore receiver Jalen Mickens had 54 yards and a TD on five grabs.
“They’re all good receivers and all of them can run after the catch,” Knox said.
On the other side of the ball, Temple’s offense was limited by McKinney to 219 total yards – 146 passing by junior quarterback Reese Rumfield and 73 rushing on 29 carries, led by senior Deshaun Brundage’s hard-earned 51 yards on 15 rushes.
EYES ON THE END ZONE: Temple senior wide receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot is tackled just short of the goal line by McKinney defender Myles Elam on an 18-yard reception from Reese Rumfield late in the third quarter of the Wildcats' 17-10 victory last Saturday at McKinney ISD Stadium. Rumfield scored on a 1-yard run on the next play. Harrison-Pilot made a 33-yard TD catch from Rumfield just before halftime and finished with four catches for 74 yards and forced a fumble that prevented a potential McKinney TD. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Senior wide receiver and fourth-year starter Mikal Harrison-Pilot caught four passes for 74 yards, highlighted by a 33-yard strike from Rumfield just before play was halted because of nearby lightning activity 1:05 before halftime.
Temple’s only other pass completion went to junior Jeremiah Lennon, had a 72-yard catch-and-run play to set up a 28-yard Marcos Garcia field goal early in the second quarter. The Wildcats’ other touchdown was Rumfield’s 1-yard push late in the third period for a 17-3 lead.
First-year offensive coordinator Robby Case, promoted in June after coordinating Temple’s special teams, said penalties, dropped passes and other problems prevented the Wildcats from playing as well as they wanted to. He also credited McKinney’s burly defense for making things difficult.
“Our kids played really hard. That was the positive to me. Obviously it was one of the sloppiest games I’ve ever seen, with (10) penalties (for 70 yards) and four dropped balls. But that’s first-game jitters,” Case said. “You’ve got a bunch of kids who hadn’t played together yet and a bunch of younger kids who popped in there. They’re not a young offensive line. We have three returning starters, so they should have been able to pick up some stuff a little more.
“McKinney did a good job on defense. They were running an odd front and then they would stem to a four-man front in the middle of the series. It’s hard to get high school kids to understand, ‘OK, now my rules change based on who I’m working to.’ They did a good job of mixing it up on us.”
Case lamented several dropped passes by various receivers that would have created long gains had they been caught.
“Dropped balls are just a lack of focus. That’s all it is,” Case said. “It starts in practice. We drop a lot of balls in practice. You’re just taking your eyes off the ball too soon. You complete two of those opportunities and it ends up being a heck of a lot better-looking ballgame.”
Case complimented Harrison-Pilot for chasing down junior safety and fellow four-star recruit Xavier Filsaime and causing him to lose the ball out of bounds near the Temple 5-yard line after McKinney recovered York’s fumble near midfield on a carry early in the third. The Wildcats’ defense stiffened in a challenging situation and limited the Lions to a field goal.
“That was an unbelievable play – the play of the game,” Case said.
The Willis defense has playmakers in junior linebackers Brock Perry and Kendrayus Edwards and 6-4, 275-pound junior lineman Josiah Stephens. Stewart described the Wildkats’ scheme as a 3-3 stack and “very aggressive.” Former NFL defensive back Darrick Vaughn is the Wildkats' defensive coordinator.
Miller guided Spring to a 41-14 record and five playoff berths in as many seasons as the Lions’ head coach, highlighted by last year’s 11-2 march to the 6A Division I Region II semifinals. Spring beat The Woodlands and Klein Cain in the playoffs before losing 42-7 to eventual state runner-up Duncanville.
Stewart said Miller might have been drawn to the Willis coaching opportunity by the fact that, unlike Spring, its school district has only one high school.
“There’s some draw to a one-horse town. There’s a difference,” Stewart said. “And all their studs are in those junior and sophomore classes. They’ve got some kids who can play.”
Stewart said Temple “did not play consistently well” against McKinney.
“We shot ourselves in the foot several times and were very inconsistent on assignment football, especially on the offensive side,” he said. “Too many drops and too many foolish penalties, just stuff that unfortunately happens early in the season. There was a couple of holding calls (on offense) where we had bad technique, bad feet.”
Stewart believed the Wildcats’ cause was hampered by several questionable calls by the officiating crew. Perhaps the most important one came 3 minutes before halftime, when Lennon caught a punt at his 25, sprinted deep into McKinney territory and fumbled near the 15 before Harrison-Pilot grabbed the ball and ran in for an apparent – and most unusual – touchdown.
However, a holding penalty against Temple before the change of possession negated the huge play and took the points off the scoreboard.
“I thought the one on the punt return was absolutely atrocious,” Stewart said. “I mean, either call it or don’t call it. They tackled our deep snapper (on a punt by Temple). He snaps and releases and a (McKinney) dude form tackles him three different times, and they don’t call that, which is fine. Put your flags in the car and don’t call anything. I’m fine. Let’s go.”
Stewart was especially excited about the performance of senior strong safety and first-time starter Josh Donoso, who recorded three tackles and made a diving, game-sealing interception in McKinney territory in the final minute.
“I think there were 17 guys on the grade sheet, and six of those extra ones played significantly. I thought Josh Donoso played his tail off. He’s 130 pounds if you gave him a 5-pound brick,” Stewart said. “Every statistic would say he’s not big enough to play 6A football, and the kid goes out there and plays against guys who are way bigger than him.
“That’s what I love about this game. It’s the stuff you can’t measure. It’s hard to measure brains and will and heart. It’s hard to measure (intestinal) fortitude. I love this game for those kind of kids."
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