The Bridgeport Bulls started last season 4-0 with impressive wins over playoff teams Mineral Wells, Boyd and Godley.
Then the Bulls were bitten by the injury bug. With several key starters on the sidelines down the stretch, the Bulls went 1-4 in District 3-4A Division II and missed the playoffs.
“It was like the tale of two cities,” said Bridgeport coach Danny Henson. “We came out of two-a-days and got a win over a great Mineral Wells team. We started suffering injuries and it took us on a tailspin and lost a couple of close games and missed the playoffs.”
All four of the league’s playoff teams ended up making it past the first round, including Aubrey and Anna that beat Bridgeport by a combined nine points.
“When we had our kids on the field, we were a good team. We just weren’t able to reap the rewards the second half of the season,” Henson said. “We had a revolving door with starters trying to come back. We were in flux quite a bit of the season. We never got the consistency week in and week out.”
The frustrating end to last year is fresh with the Bulls as they enter 2016.
“We hope to start off fast again and ride that momentum and keep playing hard,” said Bridgeport senior linebacker Abe Huerta.
Fellow linebacker Regi Lane added: “We’re practicing with a higher intensity that at the end of the season we didn’t have. We all want it bad and are practicing like it.”
The one benefit from last year’s injury-plagued season was the Bulls were forced to put a lot of sophomores and young players on the field. Quarterback Jason Faulkenberry was pressed into action as a freshman and now has that experience as he takes over as the full-time starter as a sophomore.
“We’re reaping the benefits right now with a lot of kids that got a lot of playing time,” Henson said.
Faulkenberry will lead a green offense that returns two starters on the offensive line – Nate Ramirez and Tyler Banner – and is looking for receivers to step up after the group lost Wise County Male Athlete of the Year Keenan Holdman to graduation. The offense’s most experienced player, running back Grayson Mathes, is missing much of the preseason.
The veteran leadership early for the Bulls will come from a defense that returns eight starters.
“They will need to help. It’s not realistic with the offense with so many new people to go out and score every possession,” Henson said. “We need the defense to stop people and set us up in good field position.”
The Bulls will rely on a speedy group of linebackers with Lane and Marcos DeLuna in the middle. On the outside, the Bulls are moving all-district, hard-hitting safety Abe Huerta to linebacker.
The Bulls also have experience up front and in the secondary.
Bridgeport is not easing into the season, taking on strong 4A Division I teams – Mineral Wells, Sanger and Decatur in preseason along with Burkburnett, Gainesville and Benbrook.
“It’s tough. There’s no easy games,” Henson said.
The Bulls will then jump into a new 3-4A Division II that features three playoff teams from last year – Graham, Iowa Park and region finalist Krum – along with Vernon.
Henson expects the league to be wide open.
“There’s not anyone that can know if they are in the top or bottom tier. It could come down to one game and someone could miss the playoff because of an injury,” Henson said.
Many preseason polls have the Bulls picked to be at the bottom of the league. “We’re predicted last. We hope for a ton of upsets,” Henson said.
The Bulls are ready to take their chances and prove last year was an anomaly.
“There’s a great deal of motivation,” Faulkenberry said. “We want to make it back to the playoffs.”
HUERTA TO DELIVER HITS IN NEW ROLE
Over the past two seasons, Abe Huerta’s play at the back of the Bridgeport Bulls’ defense made him one of the area’s top safeties.
He earned All-Wise Defensive Newcomer as a sophomore and followed it up last year with an all-district and All-Wise selection after making 86 tackles and picking off three passes.
But when the Bulls start the season, Huerta will be moving to a new spot in the Bridgeport defense. To take advantage of his aggressive, run-stopping skills and speed, he’s moving closer to the line of scrimmage at outside linebacker.
It’s a move he wanted.
“I was kind of nagging the coaches to move me to a linebacker spot,” Huerta said. “I liked playing safety, but I like seeing the blitzes [linebackers do] and the attack the quarterback mentality.”
Bridgeport coach Danny Henson said outside linebacker fits Huerta’s skill set.
“His tackling ability was his best attribute as a safety,” Henson said.
He will add to an already deep and talented group of linebackers for the Bulls.
Huerta admits it was hard to make the move, but feels it will be best for the whole team.
“I wanted to stay at safety, but for me moving to outside linebacker is going to be the best choice for me and the success of the team,” he said. “Those blitzes and getting the quarterback hurries will give the secondary time to recover and make a play on the ball.”
Huerta is hopeful the defense can help turn around Bridgeport’s fortunes after the 1-4 finish to the year left it out of the playoffs.
“It was hard going 4-0 first four games and then in the Decatur game Chance [Pierce] got hurt and it went downhill for us,” Huerta said.
“Hopefully we can start off fast again and ride that momentum to the playoffs.”
BULLS IN A CAPSULE
2015 Record: 5-5, 1-4
Head coach: Danny Henson, 23rd season at Bridgeport (148-114-1)
The Bulls started 2015 4-0, including wins over three playoff teams. But after a string of injuries to starters on both sides of the ball, the Bulls struggled in 3-4A Division II and missed the playoffs. Though young on offense, Bridgeport hopes to lean on a veteran defense to make a return to the postseason.
Due to an injury to the starter, Jason Faulkenberry found himself on the field as a freshman against the two Class 4A Division II Region I finalists – Krum and Celina.
His first start was against state finalist Celina.
“It was an unbelievable experience. I look back on it and I made it through the night,” Faulkenberry said.
The freshman ended up playing in Bridgeport’s final five games, throwing for 273 yards and three touchdowns, completing 27 of his 57 passes with two interceptions.
The sophomore hopes to build off that limited experience as he takes the reins of the Bulls’ offense.
“It’ll help me in the long run. I’ll be a lot more experienced.”
In two-a-days, Bridgeport coach Danny Henson has seen growth in his quarterback’s ability to make throws and decisions.
“The quarterback position at Bridgeport is not a drive-the-bus position. There’s a lot on his shoulders,” Henson said.
“In our scrimmage, he made a lot of good decisions. He’s a year older. We’ve got to remember he’s a sophomore. He has some experience and the speed of the varsity game should not be a shock to him.”
Faulkenberry will be throwing to a new set of receivers. Colton Waters is the leading returning receiver with 20 catches for 220 yards. Hayden Sutherland added 10 catches.
“It’ll be a committee. There’s not a lot of catches or touchdowns returning,” Henson said. “They will have to get used to stepping up and making plays.”
In the backfield, Grayson Mathes returns after running for 454 yards and five touchdowns a year ago. Cole Barton and Carson Johnson will join Mathes in the backfield.
Up front, Bridgeport returns just two starters – Nate Ramirez and Tyler Banner. Both of them missed portions of 2015.
Henson points out that several members of the line will be making their first varsity start in the season opener.
Ramirez said the group is improving.
“We’re working hard. We’ve all been working together,” he said.
With eight starters returning, the defense should be a strength for the Bulls.
Among those returning starters are three of the team’s four leading tacklers from 2015 – Regi Lane, Abe Huerta and Marcos DeLuna.
“We have several players that have started three years,” said Lane, who made 81 tackles from his linebacker spot last year. “Going into practice there’s been a lot of intensity.”
Lane and DeLuna return as middle linebackers. They will be joined on the outside by Huerta, the all-district safety that is moving to outside linebacker.
“His tackling ability is his best attribute,” Henson said. “As the outside linebacker, he can run some stunts.”
In front of the linebackers, Eric Stonecheck returns at nose tackle with Demitri Hendrick and Jake Martinez at the defensive ends.
“All played a lot,” Henson said.
Casey Riggs and Zane Morrow return at the corners with safeties Chase Williams and Steele Pena. Pena had three interceptions last season.
“With all the starters returning, the defense should be amazing,” Huerta said. “Our defense has to make stops and trust our offense.”
The Bulls’ defense should be strong and keep them in games. The offense must find playmakers around Faulkenberry. While many predictions have the Bulls at the bottom of District 3-4A Division II, the league appears wide open. With growth by the offense, they could grab one of the four playoff berths.
2015 BRIDGEPORT RESULTS
Bridgeport 42, Mineral Wells 41
Bridgeport 55, Boyd 41
Bridgeport 41, Godley 21
Bridgeport 40, Burkburnett 0
Decatur 59, Bridgeport 27
Krum 40, Bridgeport 14
Celina 40, Bridgeport 0
Aubrey 20, Bridgeport 13
Anna 24, Bridgeport 21
Bridgeport 55, Bonham 12
2016 BRIDGEPORT SCHEDULE
Aug. 26 Mineral Wells
Sept. 2 @ Burkburnett
Sept. 9 Gainesville
Sept. 16 Sanger HC
Sept. 23 @ Decatur
Sept. 29 Benbrook #
Oct. 7 Graham*
Oct. 14 @ Krum*
Oct. 21 Vernon*
Oct. 28 Iowa Park*
HC Homecoming, * 3-4A II game
# at Clark Stadium in Forth Worth
BRIDGEPORT BULLS 2016 ROSTER
2 … Abe Huerta … OLB … 12
3 … Marcellus Johnson … WR … 12
4 … Hayden Sutherland … WR … 12
5 … Chase Williams … DB … 12
6 … Grayson Mathes … RB … 12
7 … Zane Morrow … DB … 11
8 … Michael Cole … WR … 11
9 … Casey Riggs … DB … 12
10 … Jason Faulkenberry … QB … 10
11 … William Vann … WR … 11
12 … Efrain DeLuna … DB … 12
14 … Colton Waters … WR … 11
15 … Jadon Maddux … WR … 9
16 … Ty Read … DB … 10
17 … Christian Stoddard … DB … 12
18 … Corbin Bailey … WR … 9
20 … Bryce Powers … DL … 12
21 … Ryan Roberts … LB … 11
22 … Ricky Fuller … DL … 12
24 … Nakoda Mastin … LB … 12
25 … Steele Pena … DB … 11
26 … Nick Anderson … LB … 11
28 … Noah Hernandez … DB … 11
30 … Brian Munn … LB … 12
32 … Carson Johnson … RB … 10
33 … Christian Hand … LB … 10
34 … Cole Barton … RB … 11
35 … Robert Weesner … DL … 12
40 … Marcos DeLuna … LB … 12
42 … Michael Young … DL … 11
44 … Zach Sparks … LB … 11
45 … Jared Padilla … LB … 11
47 … Regi Lane … LB … 12
48 … Victor Hernandez … DL … 11
50 … Brandon McDowell … DL … 11
52 … Jared Brazier … OL … 11
54 … Max Allen … DL … 11
55 … Demetri Hendrick … DL … 12
56 … Keaton Robinson … DL … 12
57 … Eric Stonecheck … DL … 11
60 … Jacob Slimp … OL … 12
62 … Conner Holzer … OL … 11
63 … Matt Rankin … OL … 10
64 … Tyler Yzaguirre … OL … 12
65 … Jake Martinez … DL … 12
66 … Nate Ramirez … OL … 12
70 … Caleb Jennings … OL … 11
72 … Alex Ureste … OL … 12
75 … Hunter Coleman … OL … 11
76 … Haden Snodgrass … OL … 12
77 … Tyler Banner … OL … 12
78 … Caleb Cornelison … OL … 11