The collective psyche of Pioneer football fans over the last 24 years of losing seasons has been, “Why will this year be any different?” Senior receiver Malik Ladet did his best to change the negative thinking on his first touch of Thursday’s scrimmage against Summit High School.
Ladet got the ball on a reverse during the Pioneers’ first possession and outran the Summit secondary on his way to a 42-yard touchdown, one of many offensive highlights for Warren County on a night where new coach Scott Smith made his Nunley Stadium debut.
Opportunistic offense and a stout defense were things that stood out to coach Smith during the first workout. He hopes his team will build on these as the Pioneers work toward the start of the regular season Friday, Aug. 22 at DeKalb County.
“It was a good first outing. We made a lot of mistakes, but it was a good beginning. We still have a lot of work to do,” said Smith. “I thought the passing game was good and the blocking was good. The running game was not where we wanted it to be.
“Defensively, we dug in and forced some three-and-outs and made some big plays. We’ve made huge strides defensively since the spring.”
Ladet’s touchdown run capped a successful first drive for the Pioneers as each team rotated 10-play possessions. On the first drive, junior Christian Wilkinson went 3-for-4 through the air, with all of his completions going to Adrian Lusk. The longest gain was an 11-yard strike on the first play.
Rickie King added a strong run through the pile on fourth down, a play that continued a successful drive Ladet eventually finished with an exciting run.
Warren County was running out of plays when coach Smith dialed up a reverse. Wilkinson made a quick hand-off after the snap, looking as if the Pioneers were going for a jet sweep. Instead, Ladet came from the other side and took a toss to catch the Summit defense off guard. Ladet was able to out-run defenders to the corner, then turn up the sideline and dive toward the pylon for the score.
The touchdown seemed to energize the Pioneer defense when it came out for its second possession and forced two turnovers. Brendon Breedlove, who delivered a bone-jarring hit on Summit’s first possession, recovered a fumble while linebacker Darius Wright picked off a pass sailing toward the sideline and took the ball all the way to the goal line.
The Pioneer stop unit would only allow one score on the night, though it came as the home team mixed and matched players late. The defensive performance was one big positive coach Smith took from Thursday’s workout.
“We only gave up seven points, but that came late when we had a lot of second-string guys in who we wanted to get some reps,” said Smith. “The big thing I’ve wanted to see is when something went wrong, how hard would they play? I saw our defense come out and make stands after a few fumbles offensively.
“I was excited with how they responded and how they played hard. We were more physical by the end of the scrimmage. That’s a testament to our seniors and our coaching staff.”
Offensively, Wilkinson and A.D. Majors took the majority of reps at quarterback, with Jordan Bonner and Rickie King splitting a few snaps as running options.
Coach Smith praised the work of his signal-callers as they were able to protect the ball and make good plays.
“Our quarterbacks played well. They made good decisions and in lots of instances, they took what could have been a negative play and made something positive out of it,” said Smith. “They did a good job of managing the game and putting us in winning situations.”
Helping the quarterbacks thrive, which included some huge passing plays like Lusk hauling in a 45-yard bomb between two defenders, was the blocking of the offensive line and running backs.
Coach Smith is hopeful the offensive line can continue to keep the quarterbacks upright while also adding some more physicality in the run game.
“Our offensive line did a great job in helping us exploit mismatches on the outside. Our running backs made some big blocks too,” said Smith. “We were opportunistic when running, but I feel like we have the line to physically dominate people on the line of scrimmage. I don’t think we did that against Summit.
“We were able to run when we wanted to, but we have to get to the point where we can run when we need to. They did some good thing to stop our inside run.”
The Pioneers will continue to work on things and will have three weeks of practice to prepare for the first game against the Tigers. If the first week of practice is any indication of how well the team will respond to having the entire coaching staff present and working, coach Smith believes continued improvement is on the horizon.
“I think the scrimmage really showed that our kids are being coached well by our assistant coaches, who have had seven workout days with them now,” said Smith. “I told the kids after the game how proud I am to be their coach. I’m thrilled by how hard they played and their passion.”
Warren County will be back to work Monday with practice. The team is set to scrimmage again this Friday at Nunley Stadium against Page High School.