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Grading The Blue Devils

Commentary

By Reid Bankston
Sports Reporter

With the state championship matchups over and football season coming to a close, it’s time to take a look back at the Water Valley Blue Devils.  By all accounts, the 2010 season was the most successful in some time for the Water Valley program and head coach Brad Embry.  

The Blue Devils had their 11-3 season ended at the hands of bitter foe Winona in the third round of the playoffs, marking a vast improvement from five wins in Embry’s first year and seven in 2009.  As a team, the improvement is seen in the record, but I will state my opinion on how each position graded out in the 2010 season.

Quarterback

Questions, questions, and more questions surrounded the quarterback position for the Blue Devils headed into the 2010 season.  Freshman E.J. Bounds beat out Chris Conard for the job heading into the season, and with expectations high for the Blue Devils, all eyes were on the young signal caller.     

Knowing the limitations of a young quarterback and having a stable of running backs, Embry needed Bounds to avoid the big mistake that has plagued Water Valley in the past, and for the most part, that goal was achieved.  Bounds is incredibly gifted with his feet and he has a knack for the big play on the ground, racking up 492 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in his debut season.  

The improvement for Bounds must come in the passing game, specifically passing in the pocket, as the freshman only completed 39 percent of his passes.  However, Bounds did have two more touchdowns (9), than interceptions (7), which allowed Water Valley to manage the game with their running backs.  

Overall, Bounds did all that could’ve been asked from him and a little more in his first year as a starter.  The potential is obvious, and with time on his side, big things should be expected of Bounds going forward.

Overall Grade – B

Running Backs

The Water Valley coaching staff made no secrets coming into the season, they wanted to run the ball.  With running backs like Eric Buckley, Torrey Horton, and Zenty Allen, I don’t think anybody struggles to see why either.  Undoubtedly the strength of the offense, the trio of Buckley, Horton, and Allen, did it all for the Blue Devils, and did it when everybody in the stadium knew they were getting the ball.  

Three different types of runners, Buckley provided the homerun threat, while Horton and Allen were more than comfortable grinding out yards in between the tackles. Horton led the team with 1017 yards and eight touchdowns, while Buckley added 738 yards and nine touchdowns.  Allen, the emotional leader of the team, rushed for 478 yards and six touchdowns in a season where the senior was hampered by injuries.  

With Water Valley’s running back trio graduating, the Blue Devils could struggle to match the production of this group.  C.J. Jackson and Kenon Kirkwood are capable backs, but with both featuring prominently on defense, it’s unclear just how many carries they will get in 2011.

Overall Grade – A+

Wide Receivers

A group that gets limited opportunities to make plays, the Water Valley receiving corp is stilling waiting for a prominent role in the Blue Devil offense.   

Only six Blue Devils caught passes in 2010, with Chris Conard leading the way with 10 receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns.  

Senior tight end Adam Langham led the team with three touchdown catches, while Desmond Hervey caught his only touchdown of the year in a playoff destruction of Ruleville.  Talent returns in this group, with Conard, Hervey, and Devin Flemming having the ability to stretch the field, and Alden Burns looking like a viable option at tight end in limited opportunities.      This group made the plays on the rare occasions when they were called upon in the regular season, but costly drops in a 10-7 season ending loss against Winona significantly hurts their grade.  Embry has said in the past that he would like to stretch the field more with the passing game, and with the graduation of three key running backs and the development of Bounds, 2011 could be the year that happens.

Overall Grade – C

Offensive Line

Offensive line coach Clint Faust expects a lot out of his group, and at times this season, the offensive line drew some criticism from coaches and fans.  However, for the second straight year, Water Valley produced yards and touchdowns on the ground and that all starts with the offensive line.  

One of the marks of a good offensive line is being able to run the ball when your opponent knows it’s coming, and for the majority of the time, Water Valley was able to do that.  

Led by senior Tommy Lipscomb at center, the Water Valley offensive line allowed the Blue Devils to rush for 3236 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2010, which is almost 800 yards and 11 touchdowns more than Water Valley accounted for on the ground in 2009.              Entering the 2011 season, Water Valley must improve in pass protection to allow this offense to continue to improve.  If they can keep Bounds healthy and upright, the freshman quarterback should be able to make more plays down the field.

Overall Grade – B+

Defensive Line

The unheralded group on the Water Valley defense, defensive line coach Bryant Mix’s efforts to replace starters and plug holes year after year often go unnoticed.  No group on either side of the ball for Water Valley has lost as many starters as the Blue Devil defensive line over the past two years, but that hasn’t stopped the production.

O’kedrik Campbell was the star for the Blue Devils along the defensive front, as the sophomore racked up 10 sacks, recovered three fumbles, and caused four more in his first year as a starter.          Justin McCammon and Kyle Tollison combined for 11 sacks, and the Blue Devils combined for 56.5 as a team.  Although undersized, this group also performed valiantly against the run, keeping blockers off Water Valley’s star linebackers.  

This group should continue to improve next season, as McCammon and Campbell both return.

Overall Grade – B+

Linebackers

Like the running backs on offense, the Water Valley linebackers have been nothing short of spectacular for two years.  Tackles, interceptions, sacks, this group has continued to do it all for the self proclaimed “Wrecking Crew.”  

Led by emotional leader J.D. Fondon with 186 tackles and C.J. Jackson with 150, the Water Valley linebackers set the tone for a physical Water Valley defense.  Quinterrio Bailey showed continued improvement throughout the season, as sophomore linebacker accounted for 100 tackles, two sacks, and an interception this season.  

Tackles Jackson and Fondon combined for 20.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and an interception in 2010.  The graduation of Fondon will hurt, but Bailey and Jackson both cover a lot of ground, and are expected to be two of Water Valley’s top performers on defense in 2011.          Fondon was the rock for the Water Valley defense and could always be counted on to lead the Water Valley defense.  Although a different type of personality, Jackson must step into that role next season.

Overall Grade – A+

Secondary

Blessed with athleticism and size, the pieces have always been there for coaches Shane Brown and Steve Thompson to form a good secondary.  In the two previous seasons, youth and inexperience cost the Water Valley secondary dearly at times, as big plays in the passing game were all too common.  

However, since the introduction of Kenon Kirkwood at safety, the extra speed and experience has allowed the Blue Devil secondary to flourish.  With the exception of a win at Nettleton, the Blue Devils were rock solid against the passing game, and extremely physical in run support.  

Eric Buckley had 85 tackles from his safety position, while Kirkwood added 76.  Corners Chris Conard, Tavi Toles, and Desmond Hervey all have a wealth of natural ability, which makes getting past them more than difficult.  

Conard led the team with four interceptions, while also adding 75 tackles.  The improvement from this group should continue in 2011, with Hervey, Conard, and Kirkwood all returning.  Devin Fleming spelled Buckley at safety during the senior’s time on the sidelines, but it’s unclear whether he is the long term answer at safety.  Water Valley could be well served if Conard moves to safety in 2011, allowing the junior to showcase his physicality and ball skills.

Overall Grade – B

Overall

Although wounds from a heartbreaking season ending loss to Winona are probably still fresh, the 2010 season should be viewed as a success for the Water Valley Blue Devils.  11 wins marks the highest total by any Blue Devil team in ages, and Water Valley’s three losses came against teams with a combined 41-4 record.  

Of those teams, both Calhoun City (2A) and Aberdeen (3A) competed as north half winners in Jackson at last Friday’s state championship games, while Winona was eliminated by Aberdeen in the North Half championship.  

Although there will be some disappointment surrounding the Winona playoff loss, as the Blue Devils had beaten the Tigers in the regular season,  the Blue Devils enjoyed considerable playoff success, shutting out Corinth and Ruleville in dominating fashion.  

With Pride being restored and statewide respect being earned, Water Valley must now focus on going one step further in 2011, and attempt to play for at least a trip to the state championship in Jackson.  There will be some key losses , but the pieces are in place with Jackson, Conard, and Bounds for the Blue Devils to contend for the school’s first state championship since 1990.

Overall Grade – B+

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