Falcons, Hawks meet on gridiron in season opener

Central's Varsey Bright fields a punt return during a recent practice drill. Rich Cooley/Daily

Central High School quarterback Zeb Dyer said the Falcons can’t be content to ride the coattails of a nine-win season last year that saw them reach the second round of the playoffs. Skyline safety/receiver Matt Rutherford said the Hawks need to make a statement after last year’s disappointing two-win campaign. For the third straight year the two teams will kick off the new campaign with a head-to-head meeting.

Central hosts the Hawks in a 7:30 p.m. kickoff tonight to open the 2017 season, and while Falcons head coach Mike Yew expects to see an improved Skyline squad hit the field, his counterpart, Heath Gilbert, said the Hawks have plenty of work to do to avenge last season’s 34-13 loss.

“They’re a proven team,” Gilbert said of the Falcons. “Those guys won nine football games last year, they were in the playoffs, so I wouldn’t say we’re on the same page with them. We need to step up to play with them, so that’s the first thing.

“They’re physical, they’re coming at you. They’re tough football players, their running backs are tough and they’ve got some really talented skill guys and a very good quarterback to get them the football.”

A year ago the Falcons rushed 47 times for 215 yards against Skyline. Former Central running back Carston Shockey, who scored four touchdowns in the win, has since graduated, but the Falcons return four starters along the offensive line and two more at tight end.

Skyline High School quarterback Ryan Scott will be running the Hawks' offense this season. Rich Cooley/Daily

The Hawks, who surrendered over 300 yards rushing per game last season, will hit the field tonight with four new starters on the defensive line.

“We’re gonna get tested. We’re gonna find out,” Gilbert said. “They’re gonna take our will or we’re gonna fight back. That’s the bottom line.”

Central plans to fill the void at running back with a combination of juniors Shane Watson and Hunter Mullins. But Rutherford said it’s the Falcons’ speed on the perimeter – where speedsters Kyle Clanton and Varsey Bright provide a pair of experienced passing targets for Dyer – that has drawn the focus of a Skyline defense that returns all seven starters behind the inexperienced defensive line.

“We’ve been focusing on reading our keys a lot,” Rutherford said. “We realigned and we have a different defense now. It’s really focusing on keeping everything inside so we can let our linebackers and our defensive line rally to the ball as we keep them contained, so they don’t get outside and break away.”

Skyline’s pistol offense, which returns nine starters, boasts similar weapons around senior quarterback Ryan Scott. The Hawks returned their top three leading running backs from a season ago – a trio led by senior Quentin Diggs – and a deep group of receivers that returns seniors Luis Garcia and Trenton King, a duo that combined for nearly 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

“We always say believe in the game plan, believe in yourself, believe in the man beside you,” Yew said, “and Skyline’s a team that makes you hold true to that because you have to believe in the game plan and ultimately you have to believe in the guy beside you. You can’t get caught up in ‘well I saw this happen so I went inside.’ You can’t do that. You have to play your game. You have to be disciplined and you have to play your technique every play.”

Gilbert said the Hawks have had their hands full this week preparing for a Central defense that will feature a blend of youth and experience.

“Coach Yew, I can’t wait to see him on Friday night because I might punch him,” Gilbert joked. “He’s got me working. He’s got the 4-3, the 3-4, the 3-3-5 when we’re in 21 personnel, the 4-4 when we’re in 21 personnel. They have coverages that they’re running. They have a coverage package they used against us last year, so they’re definitely toying with me right now.

“We have to prepare for everything, and (Yew) knows exactly what he’s doing. I’m sure they have their game plan and instead of us being able to focus on that game plan we’re focusing on all these situations and we’re preparing our kids. So he’s doing a good job right now keeping us on our toes.”

Both teams know the importance of a quality showing tonight – Skyline wants to build early confidence in what the Hawks hope is a rebound year, while Central is seeking a foundation to build upon its defense of last season’s Bull Run District championship.

“(The coaches are) just telling us to stay motivated and don’t think just because we had a good season last year that it’s gonna be handed to us,” Dyer said. “We have to come out and still work to be good.

“It’s really important (to start strong). We’ve gotta come out and give it our all. Don’t take them lightly and keep our foot on the gas.”