If there is a given this evening in St. Johns, where the Longhorns take on the homestanding Redskins, it’s that defending 3A state champion Payson will be pitted against a well-coached team.
After all, St. Johns coach Mike Morgan has put together a 250-58-4 record in his 32-year coaching career, and almost always has his Redskins in the state playoffs. Also, St. Johns is currently on a tear, having won six consecutive 2A North region championships.
Last year, the Redskins polished off an undefeated season with a 42-17 state championship win over Phoenix Christian.
On the road to the title, the Redskins set 2A conference records for average points per game (54.3), points in a season (760) and total offense in a season (6,309).
The Redskin defense was equally adept, setting a 2A record for most interceptions (35) in a season.
However, all those marks were set with Shad Bride, Byron Wahl, Cody Pulsipher and Kyle Hauser paving the way.
The foursome graduated last spring, and Morgan — like his Payson counterpart Matt Mayo — has plenty of lineup holes to fill.
The Skins, however, do have one veteran returning to help shoulder the 2009 burden — quarterback Steven Lindsey.
Last year, he threw for over 1,500 yards and rushed for almost 300, making him a double-threat in Morgan’s option offense.
Lindsay’s accomplishments have earned Mayo’s respect.
“He is an outstanding athlete and leader,” the Payson coach said. “Look for him to dictate the action on both sides of the ball.”
Defensive coordinator Byron Quinlan is also wary of the St. Johns signal caller, “he’s not overly fast but he’s elusive and always seems to pick up positive yardage.”
Payson will counter Lindsay and the option with what Mayo calls “assignment defense.”
Which means, Quinlan will probably assign one defender to the dive back, another to the quarterback and one to the pitch back.
If Payson defenders — including linebackers Nick Johnson, Landon Johnson, Max Johnson and Cale Novak — stay with their individual assignments, the Horns should be able to put a crimp in the Redskins vaunted option game.
Ends Tanner Clawson and Sean Ford will also shoulder a huge part of the burden of stopping Lindsay and his backfield mate Cade Ashton.
Fans tonight might also see a new offensive wrinkle from Morgan — the wishbone offense he ran in last week’s pre-season scrimmage against Blue Ridge.
“We’ll be working on (defending) that,” Quinlan said.
If Lindsay goes to the airways, he’ll have to find a replacement for Hauser, who was his favorite receiver last season.
In St. Johns’ scrimmage vs. Blue Ridge, Morgan didn’t show much of a passing attack, apparently preferring to keep it under wraps.
Quinlan’s 43 defense, similar to the one former defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes ran last year, will be anchored in the backfield by 6-foot, 170-pound strong safety Westin Gibson.
Hayes relied heavily on the cover 2 zones to defend, but it remains to be seen if Quinlan will stick with that scheme or switch to other zones, man-to-man or combinations.
“We’ll be putting a few new wrinkles in,” Quinlan said.
The Horns enter the game expecting to see both a passing and running attack.
“They will be balanced,” Mayo said.
The big question all Longhorn fans are asking one another is — “Who will start at quarterback tonight?”
Gibson was Ridge Halenar’s backup last year, and probably has the talent to be the finest quarterback in the 3A conference.
The problem is, he also is a superb running back, and can play receiver as well.
Which presents a problem for the first-year coach about where to play his budding star.
If Mayo doesn’t give the starting QB nod to Gibson, preferring to play him at another position, Jake Sleeper will take over behind center.
As good as Gibson and Sleeper can be, the game will be won or lost in the trenches, where Logan Garner, Shaffer Keith and Mason Ducanay are position leaders.
If that trio can open holes for running back Brandon Alexander and fullback Nick Johnson, and protect on passing attempts, Payson will return home early Saturday morning a winner.
Kickoff time in St. Johns is 7 p.m.