SOMETHING TO PROVE: Belton banking on better defense to surprise opponents in Sniffin's second year
ONE MORE OPPORTUNITY: Belton's Bryan "Itty" Henry (left) and Wriley Madden are hoping their senior season with the Tigers coincides with the program's first Class 6A playoff berth since 2018. Houston-committed tight end Henry was a first-team All-District 12-6A selection last season, while Madden has shifted from offense to a linebacker/safety hybrid position as second-year head coach Brett Sniffin aims to upgrade the tackling on a defense that struggled in some crucial 12-6A games in 2020. Belton begins its season with a game at Georgetown at 7:30 p.m. Friday, one week before the Tigers battle the Round Rock Dragons at Tiger Field. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BELTON – The last time the Belton Tigers played a football game that counted, it did not go well for them, especially on the defensive side.
With Belton and Harker Heights battling for District 12-6A’s fourth and final playoff berth early last December at Tiger Field, the Knights exploded for 489 rushing yards – 327 by elusive sophomore running back Re’Shaun Sanford II and 143 by hulking junior quarterback Terrance Carter – and pulled away in the fourth quarter to deal the Tigers a stinging, season-ending 42-20 defeat.
Belton first-year head coach Brett Sniffin did not like what he saw from his defense throughout the Tigers’ 3-7 season, so during the offseason he went to work on improving it. When Sniffin spoke last Friday about the big strides he believes his defense is continuing to make, it sounded like he knows something that nobody else does -- at least not yet.
“I just think our defense is going to surprise some people, because we did not play good defense last year,” said Sniffin, whose Tigers begin their 2021 season with a road test at Georgetown at 7:30 p.m. Friday. “It’s just being where you’re supposed to be and then running to the football, being physical and tackling well. From spring to the scrimmage (vs. Hutto at home last Thursday) it’s trending up. And if they continue to do that, some people may have to out-athlete us, but we should be in the right spot.”
After back-to-back 3-7 seasons, Belton aims to advance to the Class 6A playoffs for the first time since 2018, when the Tigers made their fifth straight postseason trip. Belton’s home opener is against Round Rock on Sept. 3, and the Tigers begin their seven-game 12-6A schedule Sept. 24 at Copperas Cove before they host Bryan on Oct. 1 for homecoming.
Belton’s effort and overall performance in the Hutto scrimmage left Sniffin optimistic about what his squad can achieve in his second season in charge.
“I’m very happy with how physical we were and the way we ran to the football. Just the 365-day turnaround from where we were last year at this time has been amazing,” he said. “The kids have bought in to us and they’re playing their tails off, running to the football and playing physical – exactly what we want them to do. There’s still plenty of mistakes that need to be corrected, but we’re definitely pointing in the right direction.”
Senior Wriley Madden is a prime example of Sniffin’s quest to upgrade a Belton defense that allowed 356.1 yards per game last season, including 543 total yards and six rushing touchdowns to Harker Heights in the finale.
A wide receiver and backup quarterback who scored two touchdowns in 2020, Madden was approached during the offseason by Sniffin. The coach wanted to move the 6-foot-3, 187-pound athlete to defense as a linebacker/safety hybrid. Madden certainly wasn’t expecting the drastic shift, but he quickly warmed up to it.
“It was Coach Sniffin’s idea. I’ve been playing quarterback since middle school, so it was kind of a weird thing to hear. But I’m an athlete and I just want to be on the field, anywhere,” Madden said. “I made the move. I get to hit people. That’s pretty fun.”
Said Sniffin: “Wriley’s got a chance to be a breakthrough player. He’s a big, strong, aggressive young man, so we’ve got him in a hybrid linebacker/safety position. He shows his aggression out there. He’s taken to it awesome and his attitude’s been fantastic.”
A big part of that attitude for Madden and his defensive teammates is that the Tigers plan to take the fight to their opponents this season as they strive to play a much more physical brand of football.
“Our defense will hit people in the mouth. That’ll really throw people off, because in the past we haven’t really been a hard-hitting team," Madden said. "This year I think we’re able to put that on the field."
Sniffin and the Tigers have enjoyed a much smoother 2021 after his first year on the job proved to be a disjointed one. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled spring practice, delayed the start of the season by four weeks and prevented Sniffin and his coaching staff from getting to know their players as well as they wanted to.
COVID-19 issues within the program made Belton forfeit its district game at rival Temple and push the Harker Heights game to the end of the season.
“No, it wasn’t (smooth),” said Sniffin, whose son Joe Sniffin (Tyler Junior College) was a senior linebacker last year and led Belton with 82 tackles despite playing on a torn ACL. “You want to build relationships with the kids, but last year we had to keep the kids at a distance and couldn’t do some of the things we want to do to build those relationships so that they trust us and believe in us wholeheartedly. We want to be there for them in life, so that they know whatever they’ve got going on, we’re there to help them.
“(This year) we were able to form these relationships by being around the kids and for all of our coaches to be able to do home visits and meet their families. To take time to build that piece, I think that’s huge. If you want a kid to do something for you, they’ve got to know that they can trust you. We’ve built that trust over that time.”
GUY OF THE TIGERS: Belton head coach Brett Sniffin went 3-7 in his first season with the Tigers after going 75-22 with eight playoff berths in eight years at Fort Bend Ridge Point, whose program he built from scratch. Sniffin shoots to guide Belton to its first playoff trip since 2018 and also its first win against rival Temple since 2010. The Wildcats visit Tiger Field on Oct. 15. Junior Slade LeBlanc and sophomore Ty Brown are competing for Belton's starting quarterback role. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Paced by two productive seniors in running back Maurice Reed (1,171 yards, 10 touchdowns) and dual-threat quarterback Ruben Jimenez (1,701 passing yards, 564 rushing yards), Belton’s offense averaged 409.8 yards per game last season, almost equally balanced between the run and the pass.
Some new weapons must emerge at the positions they vacated, but two skilled playmakers return in Houston-committed senior tight end Bryan “Itty” Henry and senior wide receiver Seth Morgan. The 6-3, 228-pound Henry led the Tigers with 34 receptions for 578 yards and five touchdowns and was a first-team all-district selection last year. Morgan (6-2, 167), Belton’s fastest player in the 40-yard dash at sub-4.5 seconds, caught 22 balls for 408 yards and three TDs and was second-team all-district.
The burly-but-nimble Henry committed on Aug. 9 to Houston, which already has two Belton graduates on its roster with defensive lineman Logan Hall and safety Garrison Vaughn.
“Their campus is nice and I like the coaching staff. Two players from here went there, and it just feels like home,” Henry said about Houston.
Sniffin said the Cougars’ staff was impressed by Henry’s 4.5-second speed in the 40 along with his size and skills as a receiver and blocker. He has the versatility to play a true tight end spot or to split out wide.
“Itty can do both. That’s the beauty of him. You get a guy like him and it makes your offense very multiple, and he’s probably our best blocker up front. He’s a kid they’re going to have to stop,” Sniffin said. “Itty can be an NFL-type guy if he gets it, because of his size, speed and hands. That’s a rare combination. And he blocks. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there. He’s quiet and mild-mannered, then you put him in a competition field and he’ll get after you.”
Senior Mason Munz (6-5, 228) gives Belton the option to use some sets with two tight ends.
Henry said that playing for Sniffin, whose on-field demeanor could be described as intense and demanding, means having to endure some tough coaching.
“It’s every day, pretty much. We’re the leaders, so he has to (stay on us),” a smiling Henry said after Monday morning’s practice as Madden agreed. “He’s a good coach.”
Sniffin said fleet-footed outside receiver Morgan is primed for a stellar senior season.
“He’s this tall, skinny kid out there and he’s unassuming, but then all of a sudden he can run by you. He’s also a great route runner,” the coach said. “He doesn’t say two words, but he’s a great athlete and has good hands.”
At quarterback, Belton has an ongoing competition between junior Slade LeBlanc (5-11, 193) and sophomore Ty Brown (6-4, 180). Sniffin said he’ll likely use the Tigers' three non-district games to give both QBs opportunities to earn the starting job.
“Our quarterback situation is still very fluid with Slade and Ty,” Sniffin said. “They offer different types of quarterbacks but can get a lot of things done. Slade’s a fast guy and quick, but he also knows where to deliver the football. Ty is more of a dropback passer. He’s a tall, rangy kid but he can move well enough.
“That’s what non-district is for. You’ve got time to play more kids to figure out who you can trust. I can’t see us not playing both of them throughout the year, in different roles with what their skill sets are good for. Competition makes you better.”
LeBlanc, who also has a strong kicking leg, is listed as an “athlete” on the roster and could play receiver and/or running back if/when when he’s not at quarterback.
“Slade might have that capability. If one of (the quarterbacks) starts to separate, we’ll go with one, no doubt,” Sniffin said. “But right now, every day one of them does something good and one of them screws up, and then the next day it’s the opposite.”
Belton seeks to replace Reed’s production with a combination of running backs, including senior Elijah Warner and junior LJ Underwood along with senior Javier Luna in an H-back/tailback role.
Juniors Mason Ramm – who made a long touchdown catch in the Hutto scrimmage – and Garrett Oliveira are the top inside receivers, with emerging sophomore Angel Guerrero and senior Garrett Mooney providing depth.
The Tigers’ offense lost outstanding lineman Thomas Bowman (Southern Arkansas) to graduation but still will put plenty of size on the field this season. The projected starters are junior left tackle Robert Trent (6-5, 287), senior left guard Ryan Hunt (6-5, 308), junior center Zachary Erickson (6-2, 263), senior right guard Scotty Butler (6-3, 279) and junior right guard Jasper Werry (6-4, 255).
Werry’s twin brother Jackson Werry (6-4, 238) is in the line rotation, as is senior Jackson Engelke (6-1, 235), who was the Tigers’ starting center last year but is expected to play on defense as a linebacker this season. Sniffin said Engelke might pick up more playing time at guard or center as the season progresses.
“Our offensive line just needs to come together as a team,” Henry said. “They’re not comfortable yet with the whole offense. When they get that down, I think we should be pretty good.”
The memories of Harker Heights running wild in last December’s must-win district finale remain impactful for Belton’s defense, whose returning players along with defensive newcomer Madden have used that as a source of motivation.
“This year it’s all about defense. Defense has to step up. Offense has to make plays, too, but it’s really a defensive mentality. Defense wins championships,” said Madden, who wants to play college football and attended camps this summer at Stephen F. Austin, Texas A&M-Commerce, Tarleton State and West Texas A&M.
Said Sniffin: “We had trouble tackling (against Heights). I think that’ll be different this year just from what I’ve seen so far in the spring and the fall. Our kids are much better at tackling.”
Senior Aaron Bain (6-1, 170) – whose 56 tackles last year are the most among returning players – is back at the strong safety position, and rangy senior Trent West (6-2, 163; 38 tackles, three interceptions)) shifts from cornerback to free safety. Both of them earned second-team all-district honors last season.
“Bain brings a toughness mentality to us. He’s pretty good back there,” Sniffin said. “The biggest thing with Trent is just building consistency, being 100 percent focused every down and getting it done. He’s gotten better at that. We still want him to come down and make some tackles, but at the same time we want him to dissect what’s going on back there.
“With Wriley, Trent and Aaron, you’re talking about three guys who are three-year varsity people, so we expect them to perform at a high level. They’ve got more expectations on them. They’re hungry. They didn’t like the way their first two years went, so they want to finish strong.”
Said Madden: "A lot of seniors really took it into consideration that’s it’s our last year. A lot of us started that grind and took it serious.”
The projected starting cornerbacks are seniors Connor Whitman (6-3, 161) and Kage Carmichael (5-9, 143). Carmichael, who moved in from Alaska, made an interception in the Hutto scrimmage.
“Kage brings a lot of energy and spark to us. He’s about 150 pounds but plays like he’s 250,” said Sniffin, who also has speedy senior Noah Newman – a state qualifier in the 300-meter hurdles last spring – in the cornerback rotation.
The group of linebackers, which includes Madden as a linebacker/safety hybrid, will be a vital segment of Belton’s 3-4 formation. Competing for starting spots and snaps are seniors Engelke, Sam Ramirez (34 tackles), Taylor Evans and Ke’Aundre Johnson along with emerging junior Donovan Thompson.
“Donovan played well (in the scrimmage) and I definitely think he earned himself some more time,” Sniffin said. “He’s a big, strong kid with speed.”
On the three-man front, Sniffin feels good about his two senior ends in productive returning starter Braxton Haynes (6-4, 236; 25 tackles) and Tanner Conroy as well as senior nose tackle Jonah Myers.
“Haynes has done well and understands what we want,” the coach said. “Myers is not a big guy but has been playing some hard-core nose, and Conroy is another undersized kid who just plays with a very big heart.”
Senior kicker Zach White returns after scoring 32 points last year, and the strong-legged LeBlanc is capable of handling some kicking duties. Will Hayes, a 6-5 senior, was a first-team all-district punter in 2020.
“Will could be a college punter if he gets the right opportunity. He’s got a leg,” Sniffin said. “Slade can boom them. If we didn’t have Will or Zach, he’d be doing all of that for sure.”
Texas Football magazine predicts Belton to take fifth place in eight-team 12-6A, behind defending champion Temple, Harker Heights, Bryan and Killeen Shoemaker. Last season the Tigers lost by one point to Bryan and in overtime to Shoemaker.
“This district is wide-open. It’s just going to take consistency from somebody and see who makes the least mistakes,” Sniffin said. “I think Heights overall has the most athletes. Temple’s right there and you can throw Shoemaker in there even though they graduated a lot. Bryan has a bunch of young kids back.
“Temple’s got tradition, so that’s a factor. It is. They believe in themselves just because they’re Temple, and other teams may back down to them because they’re Temple.”
Belton forfeited last year’s rivalry duel at Temple because of COVID-19 factors, but Sniffin has great anticipation for the Tigers’ Oct. 15 home showdown with the Wildcats, who have won eight straight games in the series since Belton’s last victory in 2010.
“I’m looking forward to seeing it as a spectator and also as a participant, of course, just to see the crowd and the electricity. I’ve been used to big games and big playoff games, and I know it’s going to be that type of atmosphere,” said Sniffin, who from 2012-19 went 75-22 with eight playoff trips and four seasons of 10-plus wins as Fort Bend Ridge Point’s first head coach.
"That’s what you prepare for and you coach for. You want to play in a full stadium, so I can’t wait to be a part of it. I will tell you this: If we do (beat Temple), I don’t think I’ll pay for a meal for a long time. It’s a big deal around here.”
So is the likelihood of Belton dropping to the 5A level in the University Interscholastic League’s biennial reclassification and realignment next February. The Tigers could find themselves in the same district as Lake Belton, which opened last fall in west Temple and will have its first senior class next school year.
“I assume we’re going down (to 5A) because of the population shift with the other side of town growing so fast. We’re growing, but not quite as fast,” said Sniffin, whose football program has approximately 210 players. “We have a large varsity because we still have a really big senior class that wasn’t part of the split. But once they graduate, it’ll pretty much go to normal numbers.”
In last season's finale, Belton trailed Harker Heights 21-20 after Morgan’s touchdown catch late in the third quarter, but the Tigers allowed the Knights to recapture the momentum and run away to grab the district’s final playoff berth. Because of that shortcoming, momentum is a large point of emphasis this season for Sniffin’s squad.
“It was like a lot of games. We go to the fourth quarter and we’re down a point, and then the fourth quarter imploded on us,” Sniffin said. “Harker Heights has good athletes, there’s no doubt. But we’ve got to be able to execute when the time comes.
“One of our big things this year is concentrating on momentum. This football game is big on momentum. You’ve got to stop those runs when someone starts them, and you’ve got to start them when you’re on offense. We need kids who are going to be momentum starters, and we also need kids who are going to step up and be momentum stoppers."