While they aren’t lining up for the early bird special, Corrigan-Camden football is running a senior program in 2022. Of the 30 players on the football roster, 21 are playing their final year of high school ball.
It is a luxury that Coach Brett Ratliff talks about with a smile. It’s understandable, especially after a trying couple of seasons since returning home. Covid and a late start cut into the potential of the first season in 2020. Injuries slowed a promising start last year, though the team showed grit in reaching the postseason in a 6-5 season and an even 3-3 in district.
They now drop down a classification and have a veteran group that knows the system.
“We are senior heavy. We have 21 seniors on a 2A Div. 1 football team,” Ratliff said. “That is pretty impressive. I attribute that to how hard the kids work and how excited they are about the program. I also attribute that to when they were sophomores and we didn’t do as well as we needed. They took their lumps and they wanted to stick with it and go harder. Here we are.”
The Bulldog offense will continue as it has the first two years under Ratliff. The pro-style attack leans heavily on the option, with a few backs and a tight end mainly. There are times when a few more receivers will get on the field at the same time.
“I am a counterpuncher offensively,” Ratliff said. “We will try to impose our will on certain things and in certain plays. But, based on what the defense is giving us and where their real strengths are, we are going to try to counterbalance that.
“I am not an offense- or defense-of-the-week guy, with based on what they do, I can do this. We are so multiple in our pro style, I have a lot of things in that toolbox that I can pull out when I need to. I think that puts a little bit more on (our kids) when they start out with the offense. That is why I think we were kind of slow moving my first year two years ago. It is a lot to put in and the slower you install it, the less you have in your toolbox. We are at that point now where we have a lot of those things and have repped them very well. I feel quite comfortable in whatever we line up in that we are going to do it successfully.”
The offense has nine starters returning this year, but even that is a misleading number. The two positions with “new” starters – left guard and fullback – have plenty of experience.
“The sky is the limit and I told them that they can’t play for the home run every play. Our kids have had that mentality. I want them to want that, but I want them to be satisfied and not be upset with a 6-yard gain.
“Right now, we have as much installed as we probably did through Week 6 last year already. They retained a lot and they’ve all got so much playing time and I think they feel comfortable with what we’re doing. We have to clean up some mistakes and fine tune our technique. With athletic football teams, you tend to rely on athletic ability and don’t focus on technique as much. If we are athletes that have technique, we are really good. They are dogs and they want to go eat.”
Corrigan-Camden is in an enviable position at quarterback, with three who are capable of playing the position. Headlining that group is a four-year starter in Christian Guzman. A displaced vertebrae cut his season short in 2021, but he has returned and is ready to lead this season, according to coaches.
“He is my team leader and there is a reason why he has started all four years at Corrigan-Camden. He is one of the better players I have ever coached from a poise perspective. He never gets rattled, he never gets upset, and he never gets too high. He can throw for 200 and rush for 200 and he is excited, but he is not excitable. He can go in and get sacked three times in a row and comes to the sidelines as the same guy. You don’t get that with a lot of football players, and I love that about him.”
Ratliff said he has never put a red jersey on a quarterback, but considered making hits on the signal caller off limits with Guzman. However, the senior let coaches know that he was ready for full contact. It didn’t take long for him to prove it, making a big hit on a Buffalo running back in a scrimmage while playing free safety.
As much as he is needed at quarterback, Guzman may have more value on the defensive side. To that point, don’t be surprised to see one or even two others take snaps behind center for a breather.
JaVarion Williams may take a snap at every skill position on the field in 2022. Quarterback won’t be an exception.
“He’s going to play receiver one play, he’s going to play tailback, he can play fullback and he can play quarterback. If I wanted him to play center, he could play center. He comes in as my runner at quarterback, but he does have a strong enough arm to do that if I need.”
Speaking of strong enough arm, Morgan Rayburn stepped in after the Guzman injury as a passer for the Bulldogs. He is described as a game manager and pocket passer.
“I don’t have to think about calling plays for specific kids. Obviously, they have specific strengths, but they know it all, so I can run it all. In my head coaching career, I’ve never had three really good potentials at quarterback. All three are seniors.”
Anthony Harrell will be the starter at tailback. Harrell’s father and Ratliff go back to high school days at Corrigan-Camden. Following in his footsteps, Harrell’s father was a 3,000-yard rusher and the 3A offensive MVP in Texas.
“Anthony is a good running back. He is smart, he is savvy, and he catches the ball really well out of the backfield. He is going to split time with JaVarion, but when he is not a tailback, he is at receiver for me. I kind of mix and match those guys.”
One of the few on the team that is not a senior, junior Maddox Murphy, will also see time at running back.
Williams will start the game at wide receiver on most nights. Tony Cooper will be split wide as well. Cooper is a tall possession receiver with sticky hands. Rayburn is another receiver that has some size and can block or catch. Ayden Sowders caught a long touchdown pass in the scrimmage. Twins Bayden and Bryce Lawrence will also see the field there.
Kam Wyatt and Rayburn will be Bulldog tight ends. Jarius Hood caught a touchdown pass at fullback toward the end of the 2021 season, and Kadyn Burke will help him at fullback when needed.
The line has size on the ends and is a group that should know each other well. Angel Escobedo has good feet and anchors the line from his left tackle position. At 6-foot-1 and 290 pounds, he is likely to displace many defensive ends this year. At left guard will be Wesley Smith, and at center is Ethan Pullin. Both are able to move and get to the next level. At right guard will be Nathan Blalock and right tackle is Jonathan Cook Jr., another large body on the end.
The Bulldog defense gave up an average of 16.8 points a game in district play if you take out the last regular season contest versus Newton. Those numbers balloon when the game versus those Eagles and playoff match with Waskom are included.
Defensive coordinator Amaro Villareal said there is a concentration on producing turnovers this season.
Corrigan Camden’s 4-3 defense plays a lot of quarters and halves, making teams earn points when they get them on long drives.
“We try to keep everything in front of us and make people really work,” Villareal said. “If they want to stretch the field, we have athletes that can match that. We take pride in causing those 12- or 14-play drives. We eliminate the explosive plays.
“I am really blessed. Defensively, we have nine of the 11 coming back that were starters. I am replacing a cornerback and a defensive end. If you know us, our corners get rotated in periodically, so I really don’t have starters. We have guys that are versatile. You might start the game at one position, but the next series I might bring a corner in (shifting personnel in the secondary). I think our strength is our back end, because they have all played varsity. They all have 12 to 15 games under their belt.”
The defensive line will be one of the few areas with youth. Villareal expects to be good up front at end. The defensive tackles will borrow a bit from the offensive line, as most schools at the 2A level.
“We have Wesley Smith there and he is an all-district kid. Then, we have Morgan Rayburn, and he is a second team (all-district) guy. We are versatile up there and we can move into a 4-3 and a 50 front as well. Right now, we are looking at Ricky Inguanzo, Jonathan Cook and Angel Escobedo. Aden Stanley is another. Him and Ricky have been starting with Cook coming in. I am also looking at a couple of kids on the JV that could help.”
Burke, an honorable mention all-state standout last season, returns to lead the linebackers. Villareal calls Burke “the heartbeat of the defense,” who makes sure everyone is lined up properly. Nathan Blalock and Heath Davis are battling it out for a starting spot, while Murphy should also figure in on the defense’s second level.
Offenses will need to game plan carefully when throwing the ball on Corrigan-Camden. The secondary has plenty of playmakers that can change a game in one snap.
“I’ve got JaVarion who is all-state,” the defensive coordinator said. “Getting Christian Guzman back is huge at safety. Those two back there are dynamite, because they feed off of each other. They cover really well. We have Anthony Harrell back there and Tony Cooper out there. Those guys have a lot of experience. The twins, Bayden and Bryce, those guys have played a lot. We have Kam Wyatt, a new kid that has moved in and is picking it up tremendously. If we need to run man, we can run man with all of those guys.”
The coach says he trusts his defense now, and loves the communication and the way the back end will callcoverages. He tells a story of how the defense will check into a different coverage that leads to an interception. With an expression of how excited he is to coach the group, Villareal admits that they have come a long way.
“It has taken some time, but we are in year three. The kids even want to know if we can play a little more man to man, or play press and bump and run. We can do those things now because we know the concepts of what we are trying to do. I think seven-on-seven has helped a huge amount in our coverages and now they know route concepts. They are seeing it and learning it, and now they are ready to reap the benefits.”
The coaching staff knows this is the season. There is a confidence when they speak about the potential. Corrigan-Camden football lost some of its identity a few years ago when a streak of over two decades in the playoffs was snapped. After putting their toe in the postseason water last year, the team could make a splash in 2022.
“This is the year,” Ratliff said. “Year three is the one that you own it. I tell anybody that gets into the profession, the first two years you are trying to get your stuff like you want it, trying to get your culture built and trying to get kids to buy in to what you’re doing. If things are going great, you helped create that. If things aren’t going as well, you have to look at what you need to fix. It’s our program, and they’ve been with me in high school longer than they’ve been with any other coach. Now it’s ours; I feel real confident in that.”
Highlights of the schedule is a big non-district slate that would resemble a team still in Class 3A. Centerville is a defending district champion and one of the area’s best rivalries returns for the first time since 2015 with Groveton in the Battle of 287.
“We are going to play one of the better teams in the region (Centerville) in our district and they were quarterfinalists last year,” Ratliff said. “They are good and they are well coached. It is fun to play against those guys. Our non-district is no slouch. We’ve got some athletic teams and we did that on purpose, especially once we knew our numbers were probably low enough to come down. We wanted to play 3A, and even big 3A. Last year, I thought we were better than we finished. I thought we should have finished second in district last year or third.
“It is one of those situations this year where everything is like what we want. We know there’s going to be adversity down the road – there always is – but, I think we are very well prepared to handle it. We have seen it and faced it, so we know how to slay that dragon. There is definitely a different feeling when you walk into the locker room. The kids have a different mindset. The seniors, being 21 of them, they are leading very well. They want it bad.”