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The John Hardin Bulldogs have been good at getting the season off on the right foot. The Bulldogs are 9-1 in season openers, winning nine consecutive after falling in the inaugural season.
So it’s understandable the Bulldogs want to get this season started after going 13-1 last season and reaching the Class 5-A state semifinals.
“I’m real hungry to get started,” John Hardin senior Jeremy Harness said. “I’m ready. I’m anxious. I wish it would hurry up and get here.”
The Bulldogs better be ready.
John Hardin hasn’t faced a team in a season opener the caliber of what it will face Friday. During its winning streak, John Hardin has beaten Marion County, Madison Central, Woodford County, Louisville Butler, Louisville Seneca twice, Glasgow, Barren County and Bullitt Central.
Friday in the Don Franklin Bowl at Lindsey Wilson College, the Bulldogs face the Lexington Henry Clay Blue Devils at 8 p.m. The Blue Devils are coming off a 9-3 campaign and they’ve won nine or more games in five of their last six seasons.
“They’re a top (Class) 6-A school every year,” John Hardin coach Mark Brown said. “Every year they’re always sending people to UK. They have Division-I type kids. We can put athletes on the field. But they can put more than we can. It’s a daunting task to say the least.”
Henry Clay, which runs a spread offense, lost several key players from last year’s squad. Bo Brooks, Blake Green, Carwell Gardner and Jerry Williams generated more than 3,000 yards and accounted for 32 touchdowns last year.
But the Blue Devils return senior Vinny Miller, who played quarterback the last half of last season. He ran for 904 yards and 18 touchdowns last year. Miller, who has committed to play for Cincinnati, will play running back and receiver this season.
“The basic problem is he didn’t play in their scrimmage,” Brown said. “They’re one type of team without him and a completely different team with him. He’s like a Bubba Tandy from Christian County. He’s that good. We know what they can do without him. But it’s an unknown factor. We don’t know what they’re going to do with him.”
Henry Clay is far from a one-man show. The Blue Devils will use a running back by committee approach with as many as six players sharing carries. Evander Harris, a 6-foot-4 senior, is a dangerous threat at wideout.
Brown was encouraged about the defense after its showing against Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park in the team’s lone scrimmage. Senior defensive ends Patrick Crowe and Hunter Holloway and sophomore tackle Matt Elam all had good outings in their first starts on defense and the linebacking unit was solid as expected. Brown admits the secondary still has to make improvements, but the Bulldogs are breaking in three new starters.
“We need to get people to the ball, but we can’t get beat deep,” Brown said. “They have some big receivers. We can’t be lulled asleep and let them hit one behind us. We’ve got to keep them in front of us and make them work for everything. If we can keep them in front of us, we can get people to the ball to make the tackle.”
The Henry Clay defense allowed 24 points a game last season and the Blue Devils gave up more than 30 points only three times. The unit is led by senior Charles McCarthy, who led Lexington in tackles last year, and senior defensive ends Darius Fields and Dedreck Johnson, who both have 4.6 speed. Junior Anthony Lindsey, a 6-1, 260-pound tackle, anchors the line.
“It’s going to be a big challenge but in a good way,” Brown said. “It lets you know where you stand right off the bat.”
The Bulldogs counter with what should be an explosive offense. Back are senior quarterback Eli Mitchell, senior halfbacks Quensie Brown and Harness and nearly the entire offensive line. Mitchell passed for 1,678 yards and 20 touchdowns, while Harness and Brown combined for more than 2,300 yards and 32 touchdowns.
Brown said the Bulldogs moved the ball effectively against PRP and didn’t make many mistakes, which was a good sign from a veteran unit. But the veteran Brown has been around long enough to know season openers are often decided by which team makes the fewest mistakes.
“Turnovers, special teams and breakdowns usually are big factors the first couple of weeks,” Brown said. “The better teams make you breakdown. We have to avoid the silly mistakes and run our regular offense. It’s going to be a matter of execution, both offensively and defensively.”
Chuck Jones can be reached at (270) 505-1759