Hattiesburg Tigers' defense proving legit

By CAMAL PETRO,

The automated touchdown machine, or “A-T-M”, has been pumping out touchdowns left and right for the Hattiesburg Tigers. When most high school fans across the state look at the entire Hattiesburg team, they see offensive production and fireworks.

There’s a good reason for that. Quarterback Jarod “Snoop” Conner is nearly unstoppable running the ball and he continues to prove he’s a quality passer, too. Running back Drexlan Allen is turning heads every time he touches the ball, and receivers Darius Ruffin, Jairus McFarland, Hakeem Vance and Kadarius Hicks are playmakers in the open field.

The offense can put points on the board against any team, so a stout defense isn’t necessarily needed to win games. But, don’t tell that to the Hattiesburg defensive players and assistant coach Rashad Gandy. They want to be elite as well.

“First of all, how can you not talk about this offense? They score 40, 50 points a game,” Gandy, the defensive coordinator, said. “At the same time, we understand that, as far as the defense goes, we have to produce.”

Senior linebacker George Murry wants to make sure the defense leaves its mark on the game like the offense does.

“It’s great, but there’s pressure,” Murry said of playing with Hattiesburg’s offense. “You don’t want your offense to score 50 points and it still is a close game, so that’s like an extra kick. You want to make sure the defense puts its stamp on the game. The offense is going to score 45 points a game, so you don’t want the score to be 45-43 at the end. The defense has to shine, too.”

Entering the season, the Tigers only had a few returning starts to that side of the ball, and they lost their five leading tacklers. The linebacker position was hit hard, and experience in the secondary and defensive line was lost as well.

Saying that, Jaren Handy transferred into the program to provide size and strength at the defensive line, Tadrian LeFlore returned in the secondary and Murry helped give the linebacker group a little veteran leadership.

Gandy said Murry was the only linebacker returning who could help coach-up an inexperienced player in practice when needed. Murry has recorded 27 total tackles through four games.

“(The coaches) always talk about us being physical and being the most physical team on the field,” Murry said. “That was the main thing we worked on. Being more physical, taking on blocks, running downhill faster and stopping the run. (Head coach Tony Vance) said if we stop the run, we can be one of the best defenses in the state of Mississippi.”

Handy has been a force rushing off the edge so far this season, and he leads the team in tackles (30), tackles for loss (eight), sacks (three) and he has two forced fumbles. The 6-foot-5-inch, 260-pound senior is a mismatch problem for nearly everybody he goes against, and sometimes that can get him in trouble.

After recording a few big plays, he’ll pin his ears back and attack the ball carrier in the backfield, sometimes not playing off his technique but mostly using his size. It works most of the time, but he knows he needs to correct it.

“Sometimes I get caught trying to use my size,” he said. “I have to calm down and use my technique, because if I just use my size, I end up running the field and missing the tackle.”

All of his success comes with the help of his fellow defensive line players, says Handy. Players like senior Ra’sheim Jordan, who’s second on the team in tackles; Chris Turner and Jason Gaines make up a scary front for opposing teams.

“One person can’t make the D-line. You have to have other people who can play as well,” Handy said.

The hot hand on defense has been junior safety Anthony Bullock. Through the first three games, he picked up two interceptions and two fumble recoveries, but as all good things must come to an end, his takeaway streak ended last week against Oak Grove. But, he still played well, picking up.

In the 51-19 win over the Warriors, the Tigers’ defense looked dominant. Besides allowing a last-second touchdown, Hattiesburg held its crosstown rival to just 13 points. That just proves this defense is only getting stronger as the year progresses, especially after handing losses to Petal, Laurel and Moss Point in the three games prior to Oak Grove.

This defense has already been through the wringer.

“It’s always great to see it starting to come around,” Gandy said. “I tell them every week that we’re not there and there’s a lot of room for improvement. Those guys are buying into it and they believe we can be great on defense before this thing is all said and done.”

With region play starting next week, opponents are in for a tough task when they see Hattiesburg across the field. Mississippi knows the offense will light up the scoreboard, but it’s time to recognize the defense is legit, too.

“(Opponents) should know (about the defense),” Handy said. “If they don’t, when we play them they’ll know. We don’t really care about all that talk, because we’re going to play.”