2015 Football Preview: Jackets aim for extended tour
By Richard Greene
After a slow start to 2014, the Boyd Yellowjackets worked themselves back to a familiar spot – playing for a league title in the final week of the regular season.
“The last three years we’ve gone into the last game with a chance to win the district title but haven’t got it done,” said Boyd coach Brandon Hopkins. “We’d like to have Brock here with a chance to win a district title [this year].”
And to bring home the 4-3A Division I title, the Yellowjackets must improve off last year’s 5-7 finish that included overtime losses to Bridgeport and Ponder. Four of their five other losses – the lone exception Brock – were by two scores or less.
After some early-season heartbreak, the Yellowjackets rebounded with a comeback win over rival Paradise and then upsets of Breckenridge in district play and Brady in the bi-district round.
“We came back and ended up making the playoffs,” said Boyd senior linebacker and running back Justin Milligan.
The Yellowjackets expect lessons from those close losses will help them entering this season.
“We’ve put in a lot of time and effort in the weight room and in two-a-days. Everyone is pushing each other,” said senior quarterback and defensive back Clay Barnett. “We know every run, every ball matters.”
The Boyd offense will be under Barnett’s leadership for a third season. The signal caller is coming off throwing for 1,324 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushing for another 1,136.
The Yellowjackets will be trying to replace the 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns that Qualynn Wells provided out of the backfield. Boyd is looking for Milligan, who was limited to 22 carries by injuries, to provide the bulk of those yards.
The offense is also retooling a line that lost four starters around all-state lineman Reese Jordan.
Defensively, the Yellowjackets return three experienced linebackers and several playmakers in the secondary. The defensive line around Jordan is being rebuilt.
Throughout the roster, the key for the Yellowjackets is keeping everyone on the field.
“We’ve got to stay away from the injury bug,” Hopkins said. “We don’t have a lot of depth.”
The Yellowjackets do have 18 seniors to lean on. Their experience will be needed to run a gauntlet of a schedule that features eight playoff teams from last year – seven advanced past the first round.
But after big tests against Gunter, Pottsboro, S&S and Krum, Boyd faces a District 4-3A Division I slate that is expected to be tougher.
“Breckenridge is bigger and stronger. Brock is No. 5 in the state to start the year,” Hopkins said. “Bowie has a lot of kids back. Paradise will play us tough no matter what, and Ponder beat us last year. We have to be ready to play.”
But a 13th straight trip to the playoffs and more is definitely not a stretch.
“We can make a good run with this team. We just have to stay healthy,” Hopkins said.
Boyd plans to add air to offense
The Boyd Yellowjackets posted a lot of yards and points last season.
The Yellowjackets averaged 28 points and 394 yards behind the running tandem of Qualynn Wells and Clay Barnett and the contributions of a variety of receivers.
As the Yellowjackets start the 2015 campaign, they will once again build around the dual-threat Barnett at quarterback, who will be working with only four other returning starters.
Barnett, who is starting his third season as the Boyd signal caller, is coming off a year in which he threw for 1,324 yards, ran for 1,136 and accounted for 28 touchdowns (16 passing, 12 rushing).
“He’s definitely got the offense down,” said Boyd center Reese Jordan. “He’s been a good leader.”
Barnett will not have last year’s 1,800-yard rusher Wells in the backfield with him. Instead, he’ll be handing the ball to Justin Milligan. The senior was limited to just 22 carries last year after breaking his collarbone.
Milligan knows he must remain healthy to help the Yellowjackets reach their potential.
“Staying healthy has been a big factor since my freshman year,” he said. “I’ve played running back my whole life. Qualynn took over last year, but before that, we split carries. I know I’m capable of a big season. The whole team is. We should go far.”
Boyd coach Brandon Hopkins believes Milligan can shoulder the load in the running game along with Barnett.
“He’s going to be a 1,000-yard rusher. He and Clay can both be,” Hopkins said. “He’s got to stay healthy. I’ve talked with him about that.”
To help Milligan, a linebacker on defense, stay fresh, the Yellowjackets will look to throw the ball more.
Boyd brings back Xavier Kyle on the outside, who caught 43 passes for 789 yards and five scores last year. The Yellowjackets’ other options in the passing game include Dalton Lyon, Dylan Powers on the outside, Preston Montgomery and Garrett Moran in the slot, and 6’5″ tight end Judd Smith.
“Our passing game will be a lot better,” Kyle said. “But we can still run the ball.”
But the success of the Boyd offense will hinge on the development of a new offensive line around their returning all-state center – Reese Jordan (6’4″, 260).
The line is breaking in four new starters and will not have much size. Colton Bruce and Dayton Colbert are working at the guard spots and Alex Hames and Austin Sparks the tackles.
“We’re all gelling together,” Jordan said. “There’s a lot more based on pulling and quickness. We have to play on our quickness. They are hustling and going 100 mph.”
Moving swiftly, the Yellowjackets must avoid shooting themselves in the foot and the costly turnovers from last year. Boyd lost 26 – 18 interceptions and eight fumbles. The Yellowjackets finished minus 15 in turnovers.
The offense has an added weapon on drives stalling in an opponent’s territory with kicker Spencer Pellegrini, who made 27 of his 35 point-after attempts last year along with a 28-yard field goal.
If the Yellowjackets play another string of close games, Pellegrini may be called on more.
Jackets face tough tasks
Battling injuries from the start of the season, the Boyd Yellowjackets defense struggled during the team’s 1-4 start.
The Yellowjackets gave up 407 yards per outing through non-district, playing at one point without their three starting linebackers.
But down the stretch during their run to the playoffs, the Yellowjackets’ defense improved, holding five of their final seven opponents to under 300 yards. For the season, teams averaged 341 yards against Boyd.
With seven starters back and several other players who stepped on the field, the unit expects to be improved in 2015.
“We expect to be 10 times better,” said Boyd senior middle linebacker Adam Harkness. “We’ve worked hard all offseason. We feel we can do it.”
Harkness made 74 tackles in his first season in the middle of the defense.
“Last year helped very much. I’ve come a long way from last year,” Harkness said. “This is a big year. Everything is coming easier. I feel more confident and am getting my reads faster.”
Justin Milligan, who will also start at tailback for the Yellowjackets, will be at one of the outside linebacker spots. Dayton Colbert and Colton Meadows are battling for the other spot.
Behind the returning pair of all-district linebackers – Harkness and Milligan – the strength of the defense could be a talented, quick and athletic secondary.
Troy Thompson and Xavier Kyle man the safety spots with Garrett Moran and Preston Montgomery as the cornerbacks. Kyle and Montgomery each had picks last year for a secondary that helped hold opponents to 133 yards per game through the air.
“There are little new assignments, but it’s the same secondary with Garrett coming in,” Kyle said. “We’ll be in good shape. There’s some pressure on us, but we can handle it.”
Up front, the Yellowjackets expect to get pressure from their two big defensive ends – Reese Jordan (6’4″, 260) and Judd Smith (6’5″, 210).
“Both can move,” said Boyd coach Brandon Hopkins.
Colton Bruce, Dakota Partin, Cade Capps and Braden Thomas will rotate into the two tackle spots.
Along with avoiding injuries, the Yellowjackets’ defense will need help from an offense that put them in a bad spot with 26 turnovers last year.
“What hurt us were the turnovers and not stopping people on third and fourth downs,” Hopkins said.