When Ron Crawford left Brentwood High School for a job at Cleveland, the Bruins were running the veer option offense.
Knoxville West coach Scott Cummings figured out – one year into his tenure as head coach of the Rebels – a wing-T offense wasn’t suited for his football program. So he became a quick study of the triple-option scheme that can put tremendous pressure on opposing defenses to play near-perfect assignment football.
As a result, the new alignment helped Cummings keep good athletes at West and the moved has enabled the Rebels to appear in eight of the past 11 postseason playoffs in two divisions – Class 4A and 5A – and have reached three of the last four semifinal rounds.
The latest surge to the semifinals on Friday pits the Rebels (12-1) and Cleveland (10-3). Game time is 7 p.m. and admission is $8.
Friday’s winner will face the Northeast-Henry County winner on Dec. 6 at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville for the Class 5A state championship.
In the only other playoff game involving a Chattanooga-area school, South Pittsburgh (11-1) travels to Coalfield (9-3) for a shot to play for the Class A title.
The Rebels are riding an 11-game winning streak, but are 0-3 in semifinal matchups.
On the other hand Cleveland – which has only two losing seasons in the school’s 48-year history – is trying hard to restore the Blue Raiders’ playoff glory years. Cleveland has four state titles, including three consecutive in 1993-95 under coach Benny Monroe and in one stretch won a then state-best 54 straight games. The other championship came in 1968.
“We’re ready to play,” said senior wide receiver Tyler Davis, who has caught 42 passes for 1,028 yards, but was shutout in last week’s 26-19 win over East Hamilton. “We’re on a pretty good roll and want to make some memories for this senior class.”
Cleveland is making its first semifinal appearance since 1995 when Monroe’s wing-T offense was battering foes left and right on a consistent basis.
Ironically, Cummings ditched the wing-T in favor of his current best friend – a triple option offense that piles up yards and points with staggering regularity.
“I had no experience with the veer option – none here and none at Tennessee High in Bristol,” said Cummings, who came to West in 1999 and became head coach in 2003. “I was the offensive coordinator at Tennessee High for two years and we ran the wing-T one year and one year used the run-and-shoot and when I came here we ran the pro-I formation and used zone and power counter waggle stuff.”
Cummings learned that the wing-T was very difficult to program in at the middle school level and the fact that no single middle school feeds West High, he decided a change was mandatory to keep good athletes.
So Cummings started picking the collective brain of coaches at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, especially assistant head coach Mike Turner.
“I have more experience with the wing-T, but now everybody knows me as the veer option guy,” Cummings said. “But what that has done is allow us to have versatility with our offense. In 2007, we were based in option schemes but our quarterback, two-time all-stater Jake Ryan could throw the ball.
“This year we have Seth Marshall, who is more of a runner, and we’re still in good shape.”
In the first game between the Rebels and Blue Raiders, Marshall darted 40 yards for a touchdown on the team’s first offensive snap. Whether the Rebels run the ball or throw it, they can score points in bunches. They’re averaging 47.3 points per game.
When Crawford left Brentwood High School after 10 years, he was utilizing the option offense and is well-versed in how to run it and, more importantly these days, how to defend it.
A large portion of Monday’s 3-hour practice session was devoted to nailing down the Blue Raiders’ defensive assignments.
“We have to make sure to get the dive, the quarterback and pitch assignments,” said Crawford, winding down his second year in a rejuvenation project with the Blue Raiders, who went 14-18 in three seasons before resigning to accept a position at Red Bank.
“On top of that, West’s play-action pass off the veer looks very good,” Crawford said. “They’re trying to create space for the quarterback and two good running backs. Those are their dynamic offensive guys.”
In the regular-season meeting between the two schools, West rolled up 410 yards of total offense, with 256 coming through the air. The Blue Raiders had 358 total yards and 266 came on the ground.
Defending the veer option is predicated on sure-fire, split-second decisions.
“We can’t guess with them,” Crawford said, “because if you do this, they’ll do that. We have to read our keys and play technique football. That offense requires you to play with great eye discipline and tremendous responsibility. You can’t ever get lulled to sleep because that’s what’s so beautiful about the offense. When I left Brentwood we used the option and got a lot of big plays because we lulled people to sleep.
“That’s why we have to get the dive, quarterback and pitch. And if we decide to more or blitz them, we have to always tie our blitzes into you got dive, you got the quarterback and you got the pitch. That limits how much blitzing you can do.”
Cummings played at West High, but his athletic route to college was mapped out on the baseball field and he spent two years at Hiwassee Junior College – now a four-year school – before taking the suffix out of student-athlete and headed for Rocky Top.
“At 5-9 and 160 pounds I was best-suited to play baseball,” Cummings said. “But I knew I wanted to go with football as a career, so I put down my glove and went to Tennessee, where I was a volunteer coach for two years before going to Tennessee High.”
Since posting a 4-6 record in 2009, Cumming has gone 43-10 and reached the playoffs each year – this is his third time to the semifinals.
The Blue Raiders know what they’re getting in Friday’s rematch.
“West was real physical and had good offensive balance,” Cleveland wide receiver/defensive back D.J. Jones said. “They’ve got two good running backs and their quarterback is good. I think we’ve got to stop their run game this time.
“We have to play better. We can’t get down early like we did during the season. They’re going to play their game and we just have to play harder and execute better.”
Aided by Cleveland miscues, the Rebels went up 28-7 after one quarter in the game played on Sept. 27.
“That wasn’t a good feeling,” Cleveland’s Darius Pillow said. “I wouldn’t say they’re the best team we played. East Hamilton and Ooltewah might be better. West just ran a different style of offense that we weren’t used to seeing and I think that confused us a lot. We played with their speed because we’re just as fast and physical and talented as they are.”
After the disastrous first half when the Blue Raiders fell behind 35-13 they outscored the Rebels 12-0 in the second half.
“I don’t think they’ve been tested since our game except for in their last playoff game (a 32-19 win over Anderson County),” Davis said, “because they’ve blown everybody out of the water. We just can’t let this game get out of hand like we did the last time.”
TSSAA Semifinal Playoff Schedule
All Games Start At 7 p.m. Local Time
Cleveland (10-3) at Knoxville West (12-1)
South Pittsburgh (11-1) at Coalfield (9-3)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)