If Warren County High School’s first two passing scrimmages are any indication, wide receiver Harley Hernandez will be torching defenses for long touchdowns this season and free safety Nate Elrod will be nabbing interceptions.
The Pioneer football team made the trip to mansion-filled Brentwood on Saturday to compete in a 20-team, 7-on-7 scrimmage at Ravenwood High School. The Pioneers came to life in the single-elimination tournament at the end of the day, winning two games to reach the Elite 8.
WCHS beat Hillsboro 17-9 in the first round before shutting out Franklin Road Academy 20-0 in the second round. In the Elite 8, the Pioneers lost to a talented Page High School squad, 31-7.
The Pioneers began the day with pool play to determine tournament seeding and went 1-3. Their pool included Independence, which would go on to win the passing scrimmage.
“I thought we kind of got caught on our heels early with the kids not knowing what to expect,” said WCHS head coach Matt Turner. “We hadn’t been in that type of environment before. The kids responded well and didn’t back down. It didn’t matter what team we were playing and the name on their helmet. I feel we definitely got better as the day went on.”
The Pioneers had a few drops, as every team experienced, but on balance Warren County caught the ball very well and players showed they could make tough catches in traffic.
Playing eight different teams allowed coach Turner and his squad to make substitutions and see what players can do at different positions.
“In some situations we saw how much influence a player can have who is coming in fresh,” said Turner. “It also helped tremendously when we started communicating better. That started with our linebackers and carried over to our DBs.”
WR Harley Hernandez is already developing amazing chemistry with QB Nate Elrod. Hernandez, a speedster, has shown he can beat just about any defensive back deep.
The bomb is certainly a big part of his game, but Hernandez has also shown he can catch the ball underneath and near the goal line as his quickness allows him to gain separation.
Warren County has been a run-heavy team in recent years. But if the Pioneers opt to open it up more this season, Hernandez looks poised to have the best receiving year since Adrian Lusk and Malik Ladet were catching passes for the Pioneers in 2014.
Also grabbing attention with several nice plays Saturday was sophomore Brayden McKinley. A wingback, McKinley was used in more of an underneath role and he showed he can turn a short pass into a long gain with his wheels.
“He’s pretty elusive,” said coach Turner of McKinley. “He’s a wrestler too so he’s tough as a pine knot.”
Pioneer junior Nate Elrod and sophomore Alex van Vuuren have been alternating reps at QB during the preseason, but with van Vuuren not in attendance Saturday all the snaps went to Elrod.
In a scrimmage where there are only passing plays and no pass rush, Elrod showed he has a lively arm with solid accuracy. He limited his interceptions and mistakes and did zip a couple passes through defenders in tight windows.
With Nate Elrod taking nearly every snap at QB, he showed he’s every bit as valuable in the defensive secondary at free safety. He broke up a number of passes and finished the day with an unofficial total of six interceptions.
Elrod was especially effective in stepping in front of passes near the goal line. On a seam route down the middle, he looked like he baited the quarterback into throwing the ball, then stepped in front of the receiver for an interception once the pass was in the air.
Later in the day, coach Turner made the decision to play Tay Miller at cornerback to allow Hernandez to concentrate solely on WR. Miller settled into the role quickly and broke up two passes in the endzone during the single-elimination tournament.
Coach Turner has said he wants to get more players involved so starters aren’t forced to play on both sides of the ball the entire game. If Saturday’s 7-on-7 scrimmage is any indication, Miller looks capable of manning a cornerback spot.
Passing scrimmages are known for wild formations that don’t necessarily translate to game competition when offensive and defensive linemen are battling in the trenches.
That being said, there were still some formations which gave the Pioneers trouble from an assignment standpoint. Formations with no backs and formations with trips seems to give the WCHS secondary the most difficulty. On a couple plays, receivers were left wide open down the middle for TDs.
Coach Turner said passing scrimmages are exactly the time to make adjustments to prevent coverage breakdowns in a game.
For the ball
Outside of the few coverage breakdowns, the Pioneers were in position defensively to make most plays. Perhaps the biggest issue throughout the day was Warren County defensive backs didn’t turn to look for the ball when it was in the air.
There were several times when opponents made catches when Warren County was in perfect position to knock the ball away. But since the Pioneers didn’t rotate their hips or turn their head, they had no idea where the ball was.
The Pioneers are back in action Wednesday morning, June 23, in another large 7-on-7 scrimmage in Shelbyville. Coach Turner said it will be a similar format to the tournament Saturday in Ravenwood.