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Wounded Cougars looking to rebound

By DAVID GRAVELY

 

 

The Cougar football team will return to the friendly confines of Kenneth J. Dobson Stadium/Joel Hicks Field this week as they celebrate the 45th Homecoming Week and host the Christiansburg Blue Demons Friday night.

 

The Cougars and Blue Demons have played every season since 1999, with Pulaski County holding a 13-7 advantage in the series. Pulaski County won the first six meetings between the two teams followed by two wins by Christiansburg. The Cougars have won the past four games in a row, last season earning a 42-28 victory at Christiansburg.

 

While a quick look at the records may leave fans thinking this should be a win for the Cougars, nothing could be further from the truth due to injuries and improved play by the Blue Demons recently.

 

“They’re a pretty good football team and they’re getting better every week,” Cougar Head Coach Stephen James said Monday. “They’ve been working hard and it shows. They’re hungry for success and that shows too. Coach Wilkins is doing a great job over there and his players are buying into his system.”

 

Christiansburg currently holds a record of three wins and two losses. They opened the season with a 35-16 win over Floyd County. They defeated Giles on the road 28-13 on the road, the first time Christiansburg has defeated a Spartan team in many years. The following week they defeated Patrick County 48-14. A trip to Rockbridge County gave them their first loss of the season, 19-41. Last week, after enjoying a bye week, the Blue Demons gave Salem a stiff fight until just after halftime before falling 13-41.

 

Head Coach Alex Wilkins is in his third year with the Blue Demons, but this season has brought some welcome experience to his coaching staff as former head coach Tim Cromer has been working as an assistant coach, helping mainly with the offense.

 

The Blue Demons are led by 6’, 200 pound senior Maston Stanley on both sides of the ball. To date he has rushed 88 times for 578 yards and seven touchdowns while racking up close to 60 total tackles from his linebacker spot. He is a bruising and punishing runner and tackler.

 

The quarterback is junior MJ Hunter (5’6”, 162). His targets will be junior X-back Caleb Henley (5’11”, 160), sophomore Z-back Drew Lloyd (6’2”, 190), senior Y-back Jake Clemons (6’6”, 230) and sophomore H-back Kevon Johnson-Buchanon (6’, 201).

 

The offensive line for Christiansburg is a senior squad. Jared Witten (6’1”, 316) lines up at center. The guards are Bryson Rasmussen (5’9”, 203) and Kristian Pence (5’10”, 192). The tackles are Jesse Irizarry (5’11”, 319) and Bryson Griffith (6’1”, 212). Six of these players go both ways for the Blue Demons.

 

Defensively Christiansburg will feature senior Greg Payne (6’2”, 251) at the nose with Buchannon and sophomore Tyrique Taylor (6’2”, 230) on each side. The ends will be Lloyd and senior Brandon Cox (5’6”, 135). The linebackers will be Stanley and senior Rally Williams (6’, 206). The corners will be sophomore Travis Altizer (5’7”, 142) and Hunter. The safeties will be Henley and senior Trevor Simpkins (5’11”, 165).

 

The big question this week will be the injury situation for Pulaski County. Last week at Hidden Valley, the Cougars started the game with several players out. Senior Landon McDaniel is out for the season with a broken ankle suffered at William Byrd. Senior Luke Russell spent the game on the sideline with a boot on his leg due to an ankle injury suffered during the week. Sophomore Caleb Perfater was also not dressed due to an injury.

 

Somewhere around the third or fourth series of the game, senior Gage Mannon limped to the sideline and was unable to return due to an Achilles injury. Junior Corvin Carter left the game with a rib injury. Later in the game sophomore running back Keyontae Kennedy left the game due to a nagging shoulder injury. Unknown to the coaching staff at the time, senior Tristan Bowden finished the game but had also suffered a shoulder injury that required treatment this week. Quarterback AJ McCloud has been playing the entire season with a bad shoulder that hinders his throwing motion and accuracy at times.

 

In case you lost count, that’s seven key players out of the Cougar lineup and questionable for at least this week, if not out completely for an unknown amount of time.

 

“Football is a tough sport,” Coach James said. “Bumps and bruises are normal, but these aren’t those types of injuries. Some of these require treatment and rehabilitation before we can even think about bringing them back on the field. It would have been nice if we had our bye week a little earlier in the season, but we can’t do anything about that now. We’ve been working on some new things, but we won’t know for sure who we have available until later in the week.”

 

While those injuries are tough to manage and put a strain on an already thin depth chart at some positions, James has challenged his team to step up.

 

“When we started the season, running back and linebacker were our two deepest positions on the depth chart,” he said. “Now we’re hurting for both. That’s a part of the game though. It’s also when we’re going to find out who is going to step up and fill the holes. We’ve looked at a bunch of different lineups this weekend. All you can do is put the next gold helmet in there and give them the chance to perform. These are all good kids and they want to win. We’re going to work hard to give ourselves the best chance and cover for the guys who are injured until we get them back.”

 

McCloud will line up at quarterback with, depending on the injury situation at game time, a combination of Kennedy, Chris Shay, Chayton Rollins or Luke Russell at running back. Mannon may or may not play offense this week, even if he is available to play on defense.

 

The receivers will be John Lyman, who did a solid job on kickoff return last week, Lyan Suthers, Chase Dotson and Logan Burchett. Burchett led the receiving corps last week with four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown.

 

The offensive line will see Levi Young at center, Jacob Turman and Markus Wright at guards and Cooper Dunnigan and Clay Phillips at the tackle spots. The tight end will be Caleb Perfater, if he’s available, along with Zeke Surber and possibly Will Bishop.

 

The biggest question marks will be in the defense, which up until this point has been the strong point for the Cougars. Bowden, Mannon, Russell, Perfater and Carter will all be evaluated again later this week.

 

Bowden and Tyler Brookman along with Surber and Bishop are the normal linemen rotating up front. Others could be called on to pull extra time if needed. The ends are normally Ethan Gallimore, Rollins and and Grayson Due. Gallimore was forced to move to linebacker last week due to the injury to Russell, but that could change this week. Austin Gallimore will remain as an inside linebacker and will be joined by a combination of other players that could include Bishop, Micah Minnick and Drew Dalton.

 

The secondary took a hit with the loss of Mannon and the injury to Carter. This week a combination of Layne Suthers, Logan Burchett, Chase Dotson, John Lyman and Kennedy will be the likely candidates for defensive back. Shay will stay at safety and could be joined by any of the above mentioned players.

 

Broc Simpson will continue to handle the kicking and punting duties for the Cougars.

 

“We can stand up and make a game out of it or make excuses and take another loss,” Coach James said. “We’re going to do everything we can to have them ready. Last week was tough to take but it’s part of why they play the games. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”

 

Kickoff Friday is set for 7 p.m. at Kenneth J. Dobson Stadium.

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