With dynamic quarterback Frank Harris graduating with the Class of 2017, Clemens coach Jared Johnston figured his defense held the key to the Buffaloes’ success this season.
If the defense could hold down the fort while the offense retooled, Johnston said in the summer, Clemens would have a chance to remain among the best teams in the area.
The defense has come through in a big way for the Buffs, allowing an average of only 7.5 points in six games and pitching three shutouts under the leadership of coordinator Danny Lengyel.
“We said at the beginning of the year we wanted to hang our hat on our defense,” Johnston said Thursday. “And we have. I talked to our team about understanding (what it faced) this year.
“Offensively, understanding that it’s OK to punt. What we want to do is be able to flip field position, make our opponents have to go the length of the field to score, and not put our defense in bad situations. For the last six ballgames, we’ve been able to do that.”
While the defense has shined, the Buffs’ run-oriented offense has developed into a highly efficient unit, averaging 31.5 points and 317.5 yards.
The outstanding play on both sides of the line of scrimmage has carried Clemens to a 6-0 start and a three-way tie with Judson and Smithson Valley for first place in rugged District 27-6A. The Buffs, 3-0 in district, begin a challenging four-week stretch Friday night when they play at Smithson Valley.
The Rangers, also 6-0 overall, are No. 3 in the KENS 5 area Class 6A rankings and Clemens is No. 4. The Buffs play No. 1 Judson next week and then face New Braunfels and Steele.
“The great thing about this district is if you’re blessed to get out (make the playoffs), you’ve got a chance to make a run,” Johnston said. “If you can get through it healthy, you’ve got a chance.
“I tell our kids all the time how blessed we are to just be able to be in a district that every Friday night the atmosphere is like a playoff atmosphere. You can’t beat that for the young men and for the community, and for everybody that’s involved.”
Senior wide receiver Tommy Bush, the top college recruit on the Clemens roster, likes the way the Buffs have come together this season.
“We’re playing extremely tough ‘D,’” Bush said. “We’re doing good things. Our offense, we get what we need to. With our defense helping our offense, we’ve become a great team just doing that.”
Clemens leads the series with Smithson Valley 12-5, but the Rangers have won four of the last five games. Smithson Valley beat Clemens 45-21 last year, and the Buffs won a 57-56 thriller in 2015.
The Rangers have been one of the state’s most consistent winners under coach Larry Hill, going 249-67 since he took over the program in 1993. Now in his 25th season at Smithson Valley, Hill has led the Rangers to the state finals three times.
Smithson Valley has won 12 district championships and at least 10 games in a season 16 of the past 18 years.
“Any time you play Smithson Valley, you know what you’re going to get,” Johnston said. “You’re going to get a great football team that’s going to be well disciplined. On top of that, they’re very athletic.
“Everyone I talk to always wants to talk about how fundamental they are. Everyone leaves out that one part: They’re athletic, too. They’ve got some kids who can make plays, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The Clemens defense is led by senior free safety Darius Vandyke, who has started since his sophomore season.
“He does a great job at the back end for us,” Johnston said. “He’s played a lot of ballgames for us. He started all 14 games for us his sophomore year when we played in the regional finals.”
Vandyke has two interceptions and the Buffs have 12 as a team. Johnie Graham and Jaques Tyler have four interceptions each.
Senior tackle Savien Jenkins, senior end Carter Breu and senior outside linebacker Anthony Graham, Johnie’s twin, are other standout defensive players. Breu has four of the team’s 14 sacks.
“All but two guys on our defense have either started or played a lot the last two seasons,” Johnston said. “We have a lot of experience.”
Clemens has 42 seniors on its roster and all 22 starters have been in the program since their freshman year.
“We’ve been really close,” Vandyke said. “We’re always talking to each other. When we’re down, we pick each other up. We’ve been knowing each other since middle school. We have a really close bond with each other.”
The offense’s top players are senior running back Marshawn Brown and Bush. Brown has rushed for 771 yards and 11 touchdowns on 127 carries (6.9 average), and Bush has 17 receptions for 224 yards and five TDs.
“Marshawn has great vision,” Johnston said. “He sees the cuts and runs with a low center of gravity. He can see a hole and get through it pretty quick. What I’m impressed with when I watch video is that he’s hitting creases that I don’t know how he gets through them.”
Bush, 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds, runs a 4.4 in the 40. He has scholarship offers from more than 40 schools, including such traditional powers as Alabama, Florida State and Michigan. A recruiter from Georgia will be at Friday night’s game to watch Bush.
“You name it and he’s got an offer from them,” Johnston said. “He’s been humble about it. You’ve got to love that about him.”
Senior Mitchell Fauber succeeded Harris at quarterback and has played well, completing 33 of 74 passes for 526 yards and seven TDs.
“He’s doing a great job,” Johnston said. “He worked all summer to be our starter. I told him before the season, ‘Don’t try to be Frank Harris. You don’t have to be Frank Harris.’ He just understands his role and what he needs to do.”