By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
It’s time for Mountain Empire District football.
The Graham G-Men will take a 4-1 record into its MED opener on Saturday against Grayson County (4-1) at Mitchell Stadium.
Grayson County treated Graham rudely in the G-Men’s MED debut last season, rolling to a 41-3 rout in Independence. The clubs played again in the opening round of the playoffs and it was more of the same, with the Blue Devils prevailing 35-15.
“In both games we failed to stop the run, they ran all over us in both games,” Graham head coach Mike Williams said. “Offensively the first game we couldn’t get much of anything going, the second game we felt like we ran the ball well, but we had a couple of key turnovers and penalties.
“Without that it probably would have been a little bit closer game.”
That was last season. The G-Men enter having gone 4-1, compared to last year’s mark of 2-3 at the same point in the campaign. That includes two wins in a row, with last week’s 22-16 victory over Princeton still fresh on Williams’ mind.
Graham rolled up 411 yards on offense against the bigger Tigers, led by Cody Hatfield’s 156 yards on the ground and Spencer Sheets, who was 10-of-14 for 118 yards and ran for 81 more yards and accounted for three touchdowns.
“We are pleased with where we are at, we have progressed forward even up to the point last week we had our largest yards on offense this week,” Williams said. “We were able to contain what we felt like was two of the fastest players we have played or will play to no points in the second half so we feel like we are getting better over the course of the season, which is the objective.
“We have got to continue to improve because we are not perfect by any stretch. We have a lot of areas that need work for us to turn this into a long season.”
While Graham’s lone loss was a 24-8 defeat against Richlands, the Blue Devils lost big, 49-7, to defending Division 1 state champion Clintwood, but have put points in the rest of the opposition, including 48 (twice), 45 and 35.
“I think without question, I told our team they are going to be the most physical team we have played,” Williams said. “I think they will be the hardest hitting team we have played, they were that last year.
“I think they are the team on the schedule that would most be like playing us. They run a split-back option like we do, they are physical and get off the ball on defense so they are pretty similar to what we do.”
Grayson County is led by the Rodgers brothers — Max and Mike. Max, who is the quarterback, has thrown for three touchdowns apiece in a pair of wins for the Blue Devils, while Mike combined for 10 catches for 262 yards and all six scores in those games.
John Bilbrey, Spencer Roberts and James Williams are all weapons in the run game for Grayson County.
“Their quarterback runs the ball well, a very accurate thrower, a very athletic kid, he plays baseball and basketball,” Williams said. “He is probably their best player, he plays defense too, he plays outside linebacker or d-end. His brother makes a lot of great grabs.”
Defensively, Williams has his eyes on Jarel Smith, who had in excess of 30 tackles for loss last season, and had several in the wins over Graham. Clint Bourne is also a mainstay in the secondary.
“(Smith) gave us a fit last year. They said he had 30-plus tackles for loss last year which is just unheard of, you don’t hear of kids having numbers like that,” Williams said. “He gets off the ball as well as anybody I have ever seen at anywhere I have ever coached, there is a reason he had 30-plus tackles for loss last year.
“We had to consistently eyeball him and block him because he comes up like a wild man after the ball.”
Graham will counter with Sheets, who has accounted for six scores and Hatfield, who leads the G-Men with 468 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. He also paces Graham with 62 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles.
Williams said the G-Men offensive line had its best game of the season at Princeton, and Hatfield took advantage with his best game of the campaign.
“Cody is a good tailback, he runs harder than you think he would looking at his frame, he has a thin frame, but he pushes it up in there and takes shots,” Williams said. “He is a strong runner, he is a fastest guy on the team with just straight-away speed.
“If he can get out in the field, he is able to get to the edge well with his speed and get outside stuff that maybe a slower kid wouldn’t be able to do.”
Mark Large emerged as a weapon at tight end for Graham against Princeton, taking advantage of play-action to catch three passes for 70 yards. Charlie Benfield leads the G-Men with nine receptions, while Hatfield has seven.
“I am not surprised by Mark, he works hard, he had a great offseason and he does everything that you ask,” Williams said. “Being a first year starter you are going to have some growing pains as any first year starter would.
“Usually those type kids start coming out a few games after they have gotten a few games under their belt...Now they are getting some experience under their belt and they are really starting to show what they can do and what we knew they could do all along.”
Graham’s defense was able to slow Princeton’s speed and hold the Tigers scoreless after trailing 16-15 at the break. Brennan Wheeler led the G-Men with 14 hard-hitting tackles. Hunter Cook, Jake Tibbs and Jacob Evans also had double digit in stops. Benfield had seven tackles, an interception and blocked an extra point.
“What stood out to me is not just statistically, but (Wheeler) had some hard, physical tackles,” Williams said. “He was taking them the ground hard and we like to be a physical team so from a defensive standpoint he definitely did that.”
Williams has seen a reversal of an early-season trend when Graham had a positive turnover ratio. That has changed in the last two games, with five fumbles and fewer takeaways.
That will have to improve against the Blue Devils.
“The big thing is take care of the football, against Grayson if you give up turnovers and they score off of them you are in trouble,” he said. “We have got to get back to taking care of the football and creating turnovers...
“They’re battle-tested. They will be a tough squad, they have had their feet over the fire this year, they will be a tough challenge for us.”
Kickoff on Saturday is slated for 1:30 p.m.
—Contact Brian Woodson