The Brownwood Lions’ 11-2 football campaign a year ago that resulted in a trip to the third round of the playoffs caught many off guard, including head coach Sammy Burnett. With the bulk the 2019 roster lost to graduation, a younger crop of Lions are hoping to pull a few surprises this fall as well, but a brutal schedule – both in and out of district – awaits.
“We have a lot of young kids coming and the expectations for us and them early are that we’re probably going to take our lumps,” Burnett said. “It’s a rebuilding year for us because we lost a lot of good players. Expectations for us throughout the course of the year are to get better every week and let’s grow as a team. Let’s not worry about the record because that’s not what’s important. What’s important is to play the preseason and get prepared for the district run which is what we call the second season and be a better football team in Week 7 than we are in the Week 1. Then make a good run in district which will give us an opportunity to play in the third season which is the playoffs.”
Despite their inexperience, the Lions are ranked No. 15 in Class 4A Division I preseason poll, according to Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine, but six ranked foes await on the schedule – 4A Division I No. 3 Lampasas, 4A Division II No. 11 Midland Greenwood, 4A Division II No. 18 China Spring, 4A Division I No. 12 Midlothian Heritage, 4A Division No. 1 Waco La Vega and 4A Division I No. 11 Stephenville.
“If we can win a game we’re not expected to win I think that always propels a team to greater success,” Burnett said. “Once they realize they can play at a certain level and they can figure out how to win that fight and get over that hump and finish a game and win a big game they’re not supposed to do, then I think that will propel them into areas they can’t even dream of. It seems like every year we’ve been successful we’ve beaten one of those teams we weren’t expected to beat. I think that’s going to be crucial, we’re going to have to find a win somewhere that no one expects us to win and that will build the confidence our kids need to keep grinding on.”
Burnett recalled the 2006 Brownwood campaign, where the Lions needed to win the season finale just to get into a coin toss to make the playoffs. The coin landed in the Lions’ favor, and a 4-6 squad then advanced four rounds deep into the playoffs that season.
“It’s a challenging preseason and a challenging district but if you can get through that and get to the playoffs, you ought to be confident,” said Burnett, whose team is seeking a 12th straight postseason berth. “We embrace everyone of those challenges and we don’t back down from anybody. We’re just going to show up and play, try and out physical everybody and execute.”
The Brownwood Lions averaged 36 points and 391 yards per game last season, but return just four starters with three being offensive linemen – district newcomer of the year Ethan Pesina, Jimi Brown and Brad Robinson.
“I still think the strength of our team is our offensive line,” Burnett said. “Jimi Brown at right tackle has experience, Ethan Pesina at center has experience and then Brad Robinson at our right guard has experience as well. We got Logan Gillem and I think he’s going to be an exceptional lineman for us. He’s out right now but we expect him to be back after Week 1. Jared Northcutt is our left tackle. He doesn’t have a ton of experience but he’s a big body and a very smart kid. I still think that’s the core of our team, the heartbeat of our team.”
Another area that appears to have developed into a significant strong point is the backfield, where Royshad Henderson, Cade Jetton, Dryden Anderson, Konlyn Anderson and Trevor Evans have made big plays throughout the preseason.
“Royshad Henderson, Cade Jetton, the Anderson brothers and Trevor Evans, we have a good stable of running backs we can put in there,” Burnett said. “It still starts with the run game, we have to establish the run and that will set up the passing game. Then if we protect when we try and throw the football I think we’ll be fine offensively.”
The biggest question mark on offense coming into the season is quarterback, where Blaize Espinoza, Baylor Tidwell and Chance Jones are all batting for the starting spot.
“Our quarterback we hope to have solidified by district,” Burnett said. “I’m not sure how that’s going to go, it’s going to depend on that week to week growth. Blaize Espinoza has the ability to manage the offense, I saw some good things from Chance Jones through our scrimmages and Baylor Tidwell has come along as well.”
The receiving corps will feature Dane Johnson, Khyren Deal, Jason Jackson, Elias Huerta, and Malachi Revada among others.
“Dane Johnson out at receiver is solid for us, he did a great job last year and we expect him to be our bell cow in the receiving corps,” Burnett said. “Khyren Deal, who has played some receiver but is more of a defensive specialist for us, we think we can get some good things from him. A bright spot right now is Jason Jackson who is really shining in our scrimmages and made a couple of outstanding catches which we feel he has the ability to do. Elias Huerta is a slot receiver for us who understands what we’re doing. With just some time, I think they will mature into the players we think they can become.”
The Lions owned one of the stingiest defenses in Class 4A Division I last season, yielding 14 points and 265 yards per game with 21 takeaways while posting four shutouts. However, just three starters from that side of the ball are back – Kris Hobbs, who moves from tackle to end, Henderson at cornerback and Deal at safety.
“Kris Hobbs is outstanding football player for us,” Burnett said. “He was a nose guard last year and we moved him to defensive end and I think he’s going to be dynamic there. The addition of Tyler Tiner, who we’ve held out from scrimmages because he broke his ankle during the summer, he’s a big kid, a grinder and I think he’s going to do a good job at nose guard. We’re still looking for that left tackle but Spencer Scull has been in that spot and is doing a good job of progressing and as he understands the position more, which is new to him, I think he has the ability to play faster.”
The Lions must replace all four linebackers from last season. The Anderson brothers as well as Pesina and Espinoza have seen time on the inside, while candidates for the outside include Jetton, Jones, Hunter Day, Reece Bolton and Noah Barron.
“When it comes to linebackers, the Anderson brothers are both starting to mature, you can see them playing faster and start to understand what’s going on,” Burnett said. “Outside linebackers, we still have a committee of those guys and we’ll put them in place and they’ll split playing time until we find the exact two that we think are going to be ready for district.”
In the secondary, Henderson, Johnson and Revada will likely rotate at the corner positions while Deal will man one safety and Jordan Leach was pushing for the second spot as preseason practices wrapped up.
“I think we have a lot of opportunities, it’s just which one of those kids is going to rise up and separate himself from the rest and wind up being that starter,” Burnett said. “For us we want to be as stable as we can offensively and defensively with our personnel, but if it takes a little longer to find that right fit so that we’re ready to go 100 percent in district that’s what we’re going to do. The biggest thing is let’s get right by district, run that gauntlet and see how it turns out.”
Burnett broke down what awaits the Lions before district begins, starting with Friday night’s season opener at No. 3 Lampasas:
“Lampasas is ranked No. 3 in the state, that’s well deserved and they could be higher in my opinion.” Burnett said. “I’ve seen them on film and they have a lot of returners including their quarterback, receiver and running back. They have three of their five linemen and two linebackers back and two of their defensive linemen back, so this is really their big year that they feel like they have a shot. They had two pick sixes against Carthage last year and that was the difference in the ball game. They’re projected to play La Vega in the state championship game, so this will be a good opener for our kids to see what we have to do and see if we can match their physicality and then go out there and execute.
“Midland Greenwood in Week 2, they played in the Division II semifinals against Pleasant Grove. They’re a good football team, they have a linebacker returning that had more than 200 tackles last year. Their quarterback is back and they have a lot of good kids coming back. They’ll be a very worthy opponent.
“Week 3 against China Spring, they were in our district last year. They’re returning I think eight on offense and seven on defense, so they see this as a big year for them. They dropped down to 4A Division II so they feel like they can make a run.
“We play a Burnet team in the same category in that they feel this is their year. They’ve grown some young kids that are seniors this year, so they expect to have a good year.
“We finish the preseason against Wylie. It’ll be their first game of the year and our fifth and our homecoming and a rivalry game our kids will be up for. We’ve been successful against them the last couple of years so I think the mystique and mentality of ‘oh it’s Wylie and we’re not going to win’ is gone. I think our kids expect to beat them and that will give us a good opportunity to end the preseason on a positive note before we go into a break then prepare to hit the district gauntlet.”
DISTRICT 5-4A DIVISION I
Brownwood welcomes La Vega (14-2) and Stephenville (6-5) back to its district, while new additions include Midlothian Heritage (9-5), Alvarado (9-3) – which Brownwood ousted in the second round of the playoffs last year – and Waxahachie Life (7-4). Every team in the Lions’ revamped district reached the playoffs in 2019 – with La Vega playing for the state championship – as league teams posted an overall record of 56-21.
“I was really shocked that they put that caliber of a district together,” Burnett said.
The Lions head coach also provided a more in-depth glance at the league slate.
“Midlothian Heritage has gone three and four rounds deep since they started,” Burnett said. “They’re always really big up front, a physical football team that’s well coached.
“La Vega is projected to win the state championship this year and they’re extremely senior heavy. They made a run with sophomores and won a state championship and played for one again as juniors.
“Alvarado, we played them in the second round of the playoffs last year and they’re coming town. They’re a very worthy opponent, an extremely well coached football team, and a very physical football team.
“Then we travel to Waxahachie Life, I don’t know much about them but I know year in and year out they have an opportunity to have kids move in that are projected DI kids.
“And then we have Stephenville coming to town in Week 11. That’s always a big game, the Battle of 377. They’ll be ready to go and so will we.”
In summing up the 2020 schedule, Burnett said, “A lot of programs focus on record, we don’t. We focus on growth. The ultimate goal is to play for a state championship and along the way we have some goals,. We’d like to have a winning record in preseason, we’d like to win the district championship, but if we aren’t able to do that let’s go win a bi-district championship and as we keep going those championships will come. We’d love to be undefeated district champions but the ultimate goal is to be a state champion. Whatever the process takes for us to get there, that’s our goal. For us it’s growth week to week, gelling together as a football team, and playing with a lot of passion and character.”
Asked how good the 2020 Lions could be, Burnett replied, “The sky is the limit for them. We have a lot of athleticism, it’s just going to depend on how they gel together as a team. We didn’t expect what we got out of last year’s team but those kids bought into their coaches, they bought into the work ethic and the grind it takes to be a Brownwood Lion, they played for each other and they were selfless. If we can create the same mentality and culture with these kids — and it’s going to take the kids to do that, the coaches can’t do that, we can only lead them — them the sky is the limit.”
VARSITY FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Aug. 28 at Lampasas
Sept. 4 Midland Greenwood
Sept. 11 China Spring
Sept. 18 at Burnet
Sept. 25 Abilene Wylie (homecoming)
Oct. 2 OPEN
Oct. 9 at Midlothian Heritage*
Oct. 16 at Waco La Vega*
Oct. 23 Alvarado*
Oct. 30 at Waxahachie Life*
Nov. 6 Stephenville*
* District 5-4A Division I Game
GRIDIRON GLANCE SCHEDULE
Tuesday, Aug. 11 Cross Plains
Wednesday, Aug. 12 Comanche
Thursday, Aug. 13 Coleman
Friday, Aug. 14 Goldthwaite
Saturday, Aug. 15 San Saba
Sunday, Aug. 16 Richland Springs
Monday, Aug. 17 Blanket
Tuesday, Aug. 18 Brookesmith
Wednesday, Aug. 19 May
Thursday, Aug. 20 Zephyr
Friday, Aug. 21 Early
Saturday, Aug. 22 Bangs
Sunday, Aug. 23 Brownwood