Battle football's backfield plans to run past Jackson

Friday, August 22, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Finally, the Muriel Williams Battle High School football team had an offseason.

The Spartans spent eight months of the year away from the gridiron to build team chemistry and prepare for the 2014 season. The team didn't have that opportunity last season, as it was the school's inaugural year.

The time off the field helped solidify the Spartans’ three-headed backfield.

In 2013, Battle's running backs Nash Sutherlin, Marshall Willingham and Jerron Key combined for 1,984 yards, which accounted for approximately 61.3 percent of the team’s total 3,237 yards. Sutherlin and Willingham enter their senior season and Key will enter his junior year.

The trio gets their first chance to build on that offensive efficiency Friday night at Jackson High School. The game starts at 7 p.m.

Battle coach Justin Conyers said he likes how the backfield is multifaceted.

"Nash is our starter, but Marshall is a good change-of-pace guy to bring into the game, and we have a more elusive guy in Jerron Key," Conyers said. "We have all three of those guys who can kind of tilt the rock and do some different things. It can only really help us be successful on the offensive side of the ball."

Sutherlin, who rushed 144 times for 1,172 yards in 2013, said he is confident in his fellow backs' play-making ability.

"I think all three of us can actually do something really big," Sutherlin said. "We can break for some big yardage."

Battle runs a pistol-spread scheme , but Conyers, who coached the defense at Rock Bridge High School for nine seasons, said the team has multiple offensive options.

"We're always bringing different guys out onto the field, and that's tough to defend," said Conyers, who is entering his second season as Battle's head coach. "As a former defensive coordinator, that always used to give me fits."

Because Battle now has a senior class on its roster — the varsity squad had no seniors  last season — Conyers said he has confidence his senior athletes can pave the way.

"You don't really see it or pay attention to it much until you go back and review the film from last year," Conyers said. "You really realize they have that leadership."

Conyers said senior quarterback Brevinn Tyler, who went 65-for-153 for 990 yards in 2013, will start Friday, but junior Trip Gibson could also see the field this season at quarterback.

The Spartans went 5-4 last season and weren't eligible for the playoffs because it was their first year as a team. They will face a loaded Jackson squad that defeated Battle 48-19 in last year's contest in Columbia.

Jackson returns all-state quarterback Dante Vandeven and all-state defensive lineman Preston Hobeck. All-conference selections Josh Stone (offensive line), Xominique Davis (wide receiver), Ty Crowden (defensive back) and Gabriel Dudley (linebacker and running back) return as well.

Jackson coach Brent Eckley said he thinks Battle could be one of the toughest teams on its schedule.

"On offense, they're very explosive and very speedy," said Eckley, who is entering his third season as head coach. "I hope we can play some pretty good offense to keep them from getting some touches."

Conyers said Jackson's athleticism and productivity on both sides of the ball will force the Spartans to stay on their feet.

"For us offensively, they're a 3-4 on defense," Conyers said. "It's something a little different than we see. We will have to change our blocking schemes to adapt."

But Sutherlin said he isn't worried about what Jackson can do offensively.

"They think they're fast enough to get to the ball, so they want to play off (the line)," Sutherlin said. "I think if we can hit the holes hard we can break away from them."

Supervising editor is Raymond Howze.

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