Reeves Johnson limped off the field late in the first quarter of the Eagles’ 20-17 overtime loss to Pope last Friday with what appeared to be a leg injury. While Etowah coach Dave Svehla wouldn’t get into specifics about the injury, he did say that Johnson will not start when the undefeated Wildcats visit Eagle Stadium tonight for the Region 5AAAAAA opener for both teams.
Robbie Knox, who took over for Johnson last week, will likely start at quarterback. If so, he will face a speedy Wheeler defense that’s been known to force turnovers and take advantage by scoring points.
In a 17-12 victory at Langston Hughes last week, Wheeler (3-0) nearly lost its lead late in the fourth quarter, when the Panthers were moving the ball. But Elyjah Marrow came through with an interception to put the Wildcats in position to win.
This is also the same Wheeler defense that shut out Pope 33-0 two weeks ago, twice stopping the Greyhounds inside the Wheeler 5-yard line.
Against Sprayberry in the season opener, it was Allen Artis’ interception return for a touchdown that sealed a 10-7 win for the Wildcats.
“Wheeler has an athletic aggressive defense that seeks to pressure offenses into mistakes,” Svehla said. “They have speed up front and at the linebacker positions that allow them to run to the ball. We have not been very efficient offensively, so that makes Wheeler a tremendous challenge for us.”
Svehla said the key to success for Etowah’s offense would be getting into short-yardage situations and converting those opportunities. It hasn’t been a strength in the Eagles’ first three games, but much emphasis was spent this week on in improving in that area.
Etowah (1-2) is also working to improve its running game. Svehla said the more time his players chew off the clock, the better chance they have in tiring Wheeler’s defense and keeping the balls out of the hands of Wildcats quarterback Elijah Staley.
Etowah is also working on ways to get split end John Oliver and tight end Bryce Coroi more involved. Both players are playing well as of late.
“Defensively, we want to make (Etowah) drive the field and not give them a short field,” Wheeler coach Mike Collins said. “We also have to tackle well and line up well so we can give our guys the football.”
While its defense has stood out greatly, Wheeler has also seen big plays from its offense.
Staley had two lengthy touchdown passes to Emanuel Beal against Pope that set the tone of the game. He had two more touchdown passes against Langston Hughes, finished with 151 yards and also scrambled for a first down in the late stages of the game to cinch the win.
More importantly, Wheeler’s offensive game plan is similar to Etowah’s ground game. The Wildcats want to establish the run behind Kahlem Looney.
“Wheeler’s got some athleticism on the edge and a quarterback that can throw it or run it,” Svehla said. We’re going to give up yards defensively, but the key is to not give explosive plays and make them run a lot of plays to score.
“Short scoring drives are momentum-killers for a defense, and we need to prevent those.”