Oak Grove's experienced receivers look to step up as leadersBy ANDREW ABADIE,
Oak Grove’s offense spearheaded its state championship appearance last season, which was led by quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. However, despite losing the Ole Miss signee to graduation, the Warriors return a strong wide receiver group that hopes to make for an easier transition at the quarterback position and bring leadership to the 2019 team.
Last season, Oak Grove averaged 32.7 points per game with 10 different receivers hauling in 33 touchdowns. The 2019 squad will bring back a large chunk of its production as the Warriors return 117 of the 2018’s 195 receptions.
Oak Grove suffered a string of early-season injuries in 2018, but that allowed younger players, who return this season, to gain experience. Plumlee lost go-to wide receiver Kevin Barnett, who did manage to return in the playoffs, before the start of the regular season. Stepping into Barnett’s place was then-junior Brandon Hayes, whom two games into the season had a season-ending toe injury.
While Hayes says he is almost back to being fully healthy, the senior finished in third place as the MHSAA Track and Field championships running a time of 11.07 in the 100-meter dash. Also, earlier in the summer he ran a 4.32 in the 40-yard dash. For Oak Grove coach Drew Causey, he expects Hayes to turn back into that go-to player role he developed into early last season.
“He’s back to where he was, probably a little bit better than what he was before he got injured,” Causey said. “I expect him to catch every pass that is thrown to him. [I] expect him to take the top off the defense. He can really fly with catching deep balls and things like that. We expect him to play big.”
In two games, Hayes caught 10 passes for 236 yards and four touchdowns before going down with his injury. Filling in for Hayes was Tavion Smith who had a breakout year with a team-leading 44 catches, 720 receiving yards and five touchdowns. As a junior, Smith made himself a key part of the offense.
Another wide receiver who benefitted from the unfortunate injuries was Jordan Coleman, who with 10 catches, had 135 yards and two touchdowns in just six games. As a sophomore, Coleman described what it meant being able to see early playing time.
“It was great coming in,” Coleman said. “I had to fill in a spot. But [I was able to be] learning and seeing varsity defenses and getting better every week.”
Another key wide receiver returning is slot receiver Liam Breithaupt, who was second on the team with 39 catches and hauled in 602 yards with five touchdowns.
“This is kind of a crazy comparison but he’s kind of like one of those slot receivers that Tom Brady throws to,” Causey said. “He’s going to run great routes and he’s going to catch the ball when it’s thrown to him. He may not be the guy that’s going to catch one and take it 80 to the house for a touchdown, but he did do that. He’s a guy we know is going to make those tough catches and he’s going to block his butt off.”
As Oak Grove deals with a quarterback battle, this group of wide receivers does hope to make their next quarterback’s transition smooth, but they also have emphasized on bringing leadership to their offense.
“Last year we had John Rhys and he was the leader,” Hayes said. “John Rhys was the main leader and you can’t replace him. All of us equal one him. When everyone is talking it’s equal to basically what he did last year.”
“He was a great leader,” Breithaupt said. “He can pull a team together, but he’s a once-in-a-lifetime leader. You’re not going to have someone else do that anywhere. It’s really tough, especially when he left, for everybody to play as one. With him, he can make everybody play together as one. We all have to work a lot harder and be a lot more supportive of each other to play at that level.”
Hayes admits it’ll be challenging to continue to develop that leadership role, but feels that he and his receivers have begun to do so in the simplest of ways.
“Talking each other up, not talking down and leading by example,” Hayes said.
For Causey, having such an experienced group of guys should make things easier for his next quarterback, but more importantly, cause a problem for opposing defenses in the coming season.
“I feel like we got six or seven guys we can plug in from that group who can all make plays,” Causey said. “I really feel like that group will cause some problems. You can’t double cover Tavion, you can’t double Brandon, so you’re going to have to single cover those guys. I think that gives us an advantage.”
Developing a relationship with that next quarterback is key and being able to be reliable for their quarterback in desperate moments is something that this group of receivers hopes to develop again. Yet this group has something else it wants to prove.
“This is the best receiving corps in Mississippi,” Hayes said.
That’s the expectation the Warriors look to demonstrate in the 2019 season.