MADISON – Justin Williams suffered a jaw injury in last week's home opener and wasn't sure if he was going to be able to play Friday night.
Not only did he play, he started. On offense and defense. Even better, the senior wide receiver-now-slash-cornerback, picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown in MRA's ho-hum 49-3 victory over Copiah at Patriot Field.
Williams' 65-yard interception return in the second quarter was one of many highlights for the Patriots, who won in blowout fashion for the third consecutive week to improve to 3-0 entering next week's showdown against rival Jackson Academy.
"(My jaw) didn't feel very good, especially early in the week," said Williams, who was making his first career start on defense. "I went to the doctor on Monday and got X-rays done. He said if I could play through the pain I could play."
Williams sat out of practice Monday and Tuesday before returning on Wednesday. Starting cornerback Cam Covey, who was starting in the place of one of the Patriots' already-injured projected starting cornerback duo of Drew Peacock and Hayes Puckett, was injured during Thursday's practice, necessitating the decision to move Williams into that spot.
He wasn't really sure what to think about starting on defense, too, especially considering the fact he was nursing a jaw injury. However, he took on the additional duty with a whatever-it-takes-to-help-the-team approach. Little did he know he would get his first career interception and first career defensive touchdown to go along with his eight career receiving touchdowns – six coming a year ago as a junior in his first year playing varsity football, and the other two coming in the Patriots' 47-6 season-opening win over Bessemer Academy a couple of weeks ago in Montgomery.
"I definitely like scoring on offense better, but hey I'll take it," said Williams, with a big smile.
The play in question came five minutes deep into the second quarter with MRA already leading 26-0 following touchdown drives on its opening four possessions. Copiah quarterback Eli McCrory, who was in survival mode most of the night against a swarming Patriots' defense, threw a pass out in the flat to a would-be receiver. As the ball arrived, so too did MRA linebacker Willie Latham, who delivered a huge hit. The ball popped up in the air and into the waiting arms of Williams, who displaying the hands and speed that make him one of the Patriots' top receivers, raced 65 yards down the home sideline.
Williams also caught a pair of passes on the Patriots' initial scoring drive, had a nice punt return deep into Copiah territory setting up the second of A.J. Hasley's two touchdown runs, and also had a key block in the open field to help spring Hasley loose on his 52-yard touchdown reception. All in all, not a bad night, make that half, for No. 12. Williams, along with the majority of the Patriots' starters, sat out the second half for the third consecutive week with MRA comfortably ahead at halftime.
"Coach White called a perfect scheme, and it worked out just like he thought it would," Williams said. "Willie made a big hit, the ball popped out of the receivers hands into mine and I just took off running."
Speaking of running, MRA did a lot more of it Friday night than it had the past two weeks. Quarterback Phillip Short torched opposing defenses through the air early and often in the first two games, but he gave way in large part to the running game on this night. The Patriots ran the ball a season-high 19 times in the first half for 147 yards. Hasley, in his first year as a starter, was the major beneficiary, toting the ball seven times for 89 yards, including a 62-yard scoring scamper midway through the first quarter. Nine of the Patriots' first 12 snaps were running plays. A week ago, MRA passed the ball on 10 of its first 12 plays to open the game, running only twice.
Tyler Latham scored on a pair of short touchdown runs, and receiver/safety Rayf Vinson was also featured some in the backfield, tallying the first rushing touchdown of his career albeit out of the wildcat formation. Interestingly enough, Vinson now has two career touchdown receptions, one rushing one, one on an interception and one via a blocked punt.
"I wanted to come out and run it tonight," said MRA head coach Herbert Davis, whose team has now won 15 of its last 16 games dating back to last season. "We've been working really hard on the passing game, and we've had a lot of success there. We felt like we needed to hammer it home tonight with our run game and make sure we can get that part of our offense down a little better going into next week against JA."
Davis would certainly love to see the run complement the pass not only next week, but in the weeks to come. He would also love to see his defense continue to play the way it did Friday night. McCrory and Co. had no chance of moving the ball on MRA's first unit. Everywhere he turned there was at least one MRA defender in his face, usually more. After one play early in the second quarter, he threw his hands in the air in disgust as to say what do you expect me to do?
Copiah (1-1) netted only three yards of total offense in the first half on 34 plays. The Colonels ran the ball 18 times for nine net yards and McCrory, often running for his life, completed only two of 16 pass attempts for minus six yards. The Colonels managed six first downs in the first half, but only two of those were earned – the other four came via penalty against MRA. In contrast, the Patriots had 308 yards on the same number of snaps.
"The defense did a great job tonight, no doubt," Davis said. "It was total domination by those guys. We executed, we were fast, and we caused turnovers."
As was the case with the running back position and the running game in general, there were several question marks surrounding Danny White's defense entering this season. Namely, how do you replace departed defensive line stalwarts John Cartwright, Sam Shufelt and Jake Flynt along with leading tackler, linebacker Ridge Futral, from a year ago? Those front three were burly and good, often dominant to the point of being downright unblockable. Cartwright, in fact, was the league's defensive player of the year.
The short answer is one doesn't replace those guys. The long answer is a work in progress, although so far so good through the first three weeks despite the absence of three starters – the aforementioned cornerbacks and linebacker Stone Blanton, who was injured a couple of minutes into the Patriots' first game. Peacock and Puckett are expected to return at some point this season, while Blanton's status remains uncertain.
While certainly not as a big and strong as last year's defensive unit that allowed only 14.8 points per game, this year's defense is built more on speed. Copiah's only points came on a 50-yard field goal late in the second quarter – the first points the Patriots' defense has allowed in the first half this season.
"We were flying around to the football," said safety Joe Perkins, a Colorado commit. "We've got a lot of speed. It wasn't just one person making the tackle, it was multiple people making the tackle. That's huge when you have three or four guys at the ball and not just one or two. That just shows that we are swarming to the football. We made some mistakes tonight, but overall everybody did a great job on defense. We're coming together, playing as a team, and being physical."
MRA led 47-3 at halftime. The Patriots have now scored 40 or more points in the first half of each of their first three games, and have played with a continuous running clock in the second half all three weeks (nine of the last 16 dating back to last season). The only points of the swiftly-moving second half came courtesy of a safety midway through the fourth quarter following a bad snap over the head of the Copiah punter and subsequent tackle in the end zone. Coincidentally, the same thing happened last week in the Patriots' lambasting of Washington School.
MRA has now scored 52, 48, 49, 55 and 49 points in its last five meetings against Copiah - all wins. The Patriots are averaging 48.7 points per game through three games. They scored 49 on this night with Short throwing for 'only' 161 yards and one touchdown, rather pedestrian numbers by his lofty standards. He completed 11 of 15 passes, including the short screen pass to Hasley that ended up covering 52 yards and a touchdown, before once again being relegated to the role of spectator in the second half.
"We've been struggling with (screen pass) a lot during practice, so Coach Davis tweaked it a little bit this week," Hasley said. "The defense didn't read it, and we blocked it perfectly. I caught it, I looked and there was nobody there."
There's certain to be plenty of people on hand next Friday night when MRA hosts JA. The Raiders will come into the contest 1-1 following a 34-0 win over Leake on Friday night. They opened the season with a 26-21 loss at Pillow the week prior.
MRA has won four of the last five in the series, including a 41-6 victory a year ago at JA.
"Those four games don't mean anything going into this game," Davis said. "It starts over. After these past three weeks, we're looking forward to next week. We know it's going to be a challenge. Our focus, even though we have JA next week, is just us getting better. We did a lot of good things tonight, but man we made a lot of mistakes, too. We've just got to get better. We've got to be mature enough and grow up a little bit in some areas.
"We've also got to come in focused next week at practice," he continued. "I shouldn't have to motivate them next week, not with it being JA week."