Schools close and merge. Rivals become teammates. Coaching changes happen and seniors graduate, but look up and down the home team’s scores for the season.
More often than not, zeroes and single-digit numbers appear on the opponents’ side.
That’s the case this season as Clay Central, the second-year school formed by the merger of ex-rivals Clay County and Lineville, tears through another football season.
The third-ranked Vols lost 22 seniors from a year ago, including eight starters on defense, but they’re 8-0 headed into tonight’s showdown with No. 8 Dadeville (7-1) for the Class 4A, Region 3 title. Defense is a major reason why.
Clay Central gives up just 7.4 points and 149.3 yards a game. That comes to 3.2 yards a play, less than needed to achieve a first down in three plays.
The Vols put consecutive shutouts on Dallas County, Elmore County and Holtville. They held Handley and Beulah to seven and six points, respectively.
In the midseason non-region game, Clay Central held Munford and quarterback Monteo Garrett to 14. The Vols won 30-14.
It all starts with an attitude about defense.
“It’s just a coaching philosophy, but all of us here have the mentality that that’s kind of where you need to start,” Clay Central coach Kris Herron said. “If you can limit the other team’s success with your defense, it keeps you in the games.
“Some nights, your offense is not going to be there, and defense is just kind of an effort thing, and it’s an attitude.”
Teams from Clay County have played with that attitude for decades, but 2013 was no ordinary year for building a defense. For one thing, there was coaching turnover.
Herron was the long-time defensive coordinator at Clay County High before getting his shot at head coach and was defensive coordinator under Steve Giddens in 2012, Clay Central’s first season. Herron bumped up when Giddens went into administration.
Herron knows what it’s like to be a coordinator, so he’s likely to let his coordinators coach.
Enter new defensive coordinator Rodney Murphree, whose resume includes coaching linebackers at Clay Central in 2012. He was also defensive coordinator at Lineville, Ranburne and Randolph County and was Randolph County’s defensive coordinator for a state-title run in 2003.
Herron said the Vols’ defense is a “collaborative effort” among coaches. Murphree bounces things off of him during the week but calls the defense on Friday nights.
Not that there’s likely to be much difference of opinion.
“The kind of school that he comes from is the same school that I come from,” Murphree said.
Clay Central bases out of a 5-2 alignment, reads and reacts and plays physical football.
“We play our technique, and we get after it and be physical,” said linebacker Peyton Reynolds, Clay Central’s leader with 35 solo tackles. “That’s Coach Murphree’s number-one priority is to be physical. Number two is technique.”
There’s nothing new about that in Clay County.
Eight starters were new, however. Stars like UAB signee Jamari Staples, who stalked and closed on opposing offenses at safety, were gone.
Reynolds, lineman DeAndre Wills and defensive back Anthony Wood, also the team’s quarterback, were the only returning starters. Linebackers Ryan James and Aaron Boyd, lineman Colby Robinson, defensive back Chris Briskey and others have stepped in.
“We’ve got a lot of people that didn’t start last year, but at the same time, several of them played a lot,” Murphree said. “Last year, a lot of games would get out of hand, and they were able to get experience that way.
“But kids have done a great job of stepping in and knowing what they had to do and getting it done.”
Now, the Vols face their biggest test. Dadeville brings a spread team that averages 37 points a game.
It’s a classic showdown, but Clay Central got a good look against Munford this season.
“They both have really good athletes, and they both run the same kind of offense,” said Wills, who has 22 tackles and is tied with Robinson for the team lead with four sacks. “Us playing Munford is going to help us in this game because we’ve seen it.”
Whatever Dadeville throws at Clay Central, the goal is always the same.
“We take pride in defense,” Reynolds said. “That’s our priority as a team. We strive to give up zero points. If our opponent doesn’t score, we win. We know that for sure.
“That’s always been the priority, our defense, at Lineville and at Ashland. You put those two together, and we’re a pretty tough bunch.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.