Callaway defenders have eye for the ball
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
The Callaway Cavaliers have had sticky fingers the past two weeks.
After intercepting four passes in a second-round playoff victory over Lovett, Callaway had another four picks in last week’s victory over Thomasville.
Osiris Rivas, Callaway’s outstanding senior defensive back, had two interceptions in the second half that helped secure the 34-21 victory over Thomasville.
Senior defensive back Jalin Shephard had an interception in the first half, and senior linebacker Ladarrious Williams returned an interception for a touchdown late in the game to clinch the victory.
In the 16-9 win over Lovett, Shephard and junior defensive back Cameron Smith each had two interceptions.
Another key member of the secondary is junior safety Jarvis Parks, who had a game-changing interception return for a touchdown late in a region win over Temple.
Shephard and Rivas are the two secondary players with the most experience, and they are both having big-time senior seasons.
“The good thing about Shep and Osay (Rivas), they’re kind of like the generals on the field,” said Bruce Danford, Callaway’s secondary coach. “If someone is slacking off, Shep will get in ‘em a little bit. We can say all we want, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the players. That’s what you want from them, to start taking charge.”
Each of the secondary players clearly have a nose for the ball, a trait that’s been on full display the past two weeks.
“It’s contagious,” Danford said of the interceptions. “It feeds off of each other. They’re really starting to figure out the game. If you’re thinking about an interception, you’re not going to get one. But if you’re just doing the little things right, it just kind of happens.”
Against Thomasville, Shephard made the first of the four picks.
On Thomasville’s opening possession, Shephard picked off a pass near midfield.
Shephard then showed off his offensive skills with a 40-yard touchdown catch from Demetrius Coleman, and Callaway led 7-0.
Callaway’s final three interceptions all came in the fourth quarter.
With 7:20 to play, Rivas intercepted a pass near the goal line, thwarting a potential touchdown drive for Thomasville, which only trailed by seven points at the time.
Two plays later, Charlie Dixon ripped off a 97-yard touchdown run, and Callaway led 27-14.
On Thomasville’s ensuing possession, Williams intercepted a pass and raced about 30 yards for the touchdown, giving Callaway a 34-14 lead with 3:22 to play.
Any realistic hope Thomasville had of mounting a comeback was snuffed when Rivas intercepted his second pass of the fourth quarter with 2:52 remaining.
“Shep, what he has it’s hard to teach,” Danford said. “Osay, he probably would have led the state last year if he would have caught the ball. This year, he’s catching the ones he’s getting his hands on. It’s becoming more contagious. Cam, he started the year rough, but he’s figured it out.”
In the Lovett game, Shephard had two critical interceptions in the fourth quarter, and Smith also had two picks, including one in the end zone.
Shephard’s first interception came with the game tied at 9-9, and it led to Dixon’s go-ahead touchdown run.
On Lovett’s next possession, Shephard had another interception that clinched the win.
While Callaway’s defenders have made outstanding plays on the interceptions, it also helps that the men close to the line of scrimmage, the defensive linemen and linebackers, have put pressure on the quarterback and forced some errant passes.
“The one I had (against Thomasville), the quarterback was off-balance,” Shephard said. “Most throws when they’re on the run they’re not as accurate. So I applaud them for getting him out of the pocket.”
While Shephard, Rivas and Smith all have the physical tools needed to succeed, they also have plenty of experience, as well as the mental acumen necessary to understand everything that’s going on.
“They’re guys that have played a lot. That’s the big thing,” said Dusty Hubbard, Callaway’s defensive coordinator. “They’re also guys that understand concepts of what we’re trying to do, whether it’s man, or zone concepts.”
Parks, Hubbard added, “is the same way. He’s a ball hawk. Ladarrious Williams, he had a pick six. We’ve been able to get our hands on some balls, and get some tips. A lot of it’s just being in the right place, but also when you get that opportunity, you’ve got to catch it. That’s what they’ve done a good job of the past couple of weeks.”
Hubbard also believes the secondary players benefit from having a strong defensive front, and vice versa.
“You have to give some credit (to the defensive linemen) because it goes hand-in-hand, your pass rush makes your secondary better, and your secondary tends to make your pass rush better, too,” Hubbard said. “They have to hold the ball. A few of those, I think we’ve had good pressure, and kind of made them throw the ball up. We’ve done a good job of going and getting it.”
Hubbard appreciates having players in the secondary who understand what’s going on, allowing the coaches to expand the defensive playbook.
“The good thing about those guys on the back end is they’re so smart,” Hubbard said. “We can do a lot of stuff. There haven’t been a lot of years here where we’ve been able to do what we’re doing in the secondary, moving guys around, and playing different coverages and things like that. Their football IQ is so high that we can try some things that we haven’t been able to do in the past. That goes back to their football intellect.”
MONSTER NIGHT: Callaway senior running back Charlie Dixon has been on a late-season tear, and he continued to produce in a big way in the 34-21 win over Thomasville.
Dixon had 26 carries for 237 yards with three touchdowns, including a momentum-turning 97-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Facing a third-and-long situation from the 3-yard line, Dixon took a handoff from Demetrius Coleman, and he made a defender miss around the 20-yard line and raced down the right sideline for the 97-yard touchdown.
That touchdown, which came with 5:46 left in the game, gave Callaway a 27-14 lead.
Dixon said it was a “great feeling” to come through for his team.
“It’s hard for the other team when you just keep going, keep elevating,” Dixon added.
Dixon has run 735 yards with 11 touchdowns in the past four games against Temple, Heard County, Lovett and Thomasville.
Against Temple, Dixon had 27 carries for 211 yards with four touchdowns, and he ran the ball 28 times for 177 yards with two touchdowns in a win over Heard County that secured the Region 5-AA championship.
Callaway didn’t have a first-round playoff game because Banks County forfeited, and Dixon had 25 carries for 110 hard-earned yards with two touchdowns in a 16-9 win over Lovett in the second round.
Dixon had a season-best 237 yards against Thomasville, which put him above 1,000 yards for the season.
Dixon, who has only played in seven games because of an injury and quarantine procedures, has 1,045 yards on 168 carries with 16 touchdowns.
BIG-PLAY JALIN: Jalin Shephard had a 40-yard touchdown catch against Thomasville, and that’s nothing new for the senior play-maker.
Shephard is Callaway’s leading receiver with 24 catches for 505 yards, an average of 21 yards a reception, and he has nine touchdowns.
Shephard is also one of Callaway’s top defensive players, and he has three combined interceptions in playoff wins over Lovett and Thomasville.
In the Thomasville game, Shephard had an interception near midfield, and moments later he caught the 40-yard touchdown pass.
“He’s just so valuable,” defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard said. “He can do just about anything you ask him to do. He’s a sure tackler on defense, he understands our system. He’s just so valuable to have on the back end of the defense.”
Shephard is also an impact player on special teams.
Shephard is Callaway’s punter and he has been outstanding in that role, and he returned a kickoff for a touchdown at the end of the first half against Haralson County.
TACKLING MACHINE: In Callaway’s two playoff victories, senior linebacker LaQuize Gilbert has come up huge.
In a 16-9 win over Lovett, despite suffering an ankle injury in the first half, Gilbert had 16 tackles, including one for loss.
Gilbert was even more impactful in last week’s 34-21 win over Thomasville in a quarterfinal game.
Facing a high-powered offense that had been putting up big numbers all season, Gilbert had a season-high 20 tackles.
“Gilbert has had two unbelievable games,” said Callaway defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard. “He ended up with 20 tackles (against Thomasville). He’s done such a good job of playing inside.”
Playing alongside Gilbert at linebacker the past two weeks has been Kier Jackson and Charlie Dixon, who have been filling in for the injured Austin Thomas.
Thomas, who has been out with a knee injury, should be able to play this week, and that will give the defense and the linebacker corps a lift.
A GAUNTLET: When the regular-season came to a close, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution released its final Class AA poll.
Fitzgerald was ranked first, and it was followed by Rabun County, Thomasville and Lovett, while Callaway was eighth.
If Callaway reaches the state-championship game in Atlanta, it could end up playing all four of those teams.
After a first-round victory by forfeit over Banks County, Callaway beat fourth-ranked Lovett 16-9 in the second round.
Last week, Callaway beat third-ranked Thomasville 34-21, and it will host second-ranked Rabun County on Friday night in the semifinals.
In the other semifinal game, top-ranked Fitzgerald will play fifth-ranked Jefferson County, and the last teams standing will meet in Atlanta on Dec. 29.
NOTHING BUT SUCCESS: No matter what happens this week and possibly beyond, it has been a remarkable four-year run for the seniors on the Callaway football team.
Since the start of the 2017 season, the Cavaliers are 44-8, and they’ve won two region championships and are 11-3 in the state playoffs.
If Callaway beats Rabun County, the seniors will get to play in a state-championship game, something that hasn’t happened before.
Callaway has lost in its previous four trips to the semifinals, including the past two seasons.
“Our seniors have been great leaders this year, through the adverse times, through the situations with the coronavirus, and the situations with losing ballgames, and moving schedules,” said Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins. “The seniors have continued to lead each week. They’re solid. They don’t get too high, they don’t get too low. They’re level.”
FAMILIAR PLACE: Rabun County, like Callaway, is accustomed to advancing deep in the state playoffs.
Since 2014, Rabun County has won at least one playoff game, and it has advanced to the third round or further for the fourth straight season.
Rabun County reached the state-championship game in 2017 before losing to Hapeville Charter, and it made it to the third round in 2018 and 2019.