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COUNTDOWN TO KICKOFF: Ariton Purple Cats return plenty of experience

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The 2021 season was a strong one for Ariton, earning a 10-2 record and reaching the second round of the Class 2A state playoffs.

The finish, though, is something that is driving the Purple Cats for 2022. Ariton lost its playoff game 27-20 to Clarke County, in one of the closer playoff games for the eventual champion Bulldogs.

“We got beat by Clarke County in the second round and we had the ball third down from the 2 (in final minutes) and couldn’t punch it in,” Ariton head coach Steven Kilcrease said. “We saw how close we were. The guys are hungry to win.”

With eight starters back from an offense that averaged 40.5 points a game last year and seven from a defense that allowed a respectable 16.7 points a game, the Purple Cats feel they can make a deep run this year to the state championship game.

“We probably have the most kids returning that we have had,” said Kilcrease, who is in seventh year at Ariton. “We have a very good senior group. We have all our skill back pretty much on both sides of the ball and we have not had that in the past.

“We have to fill some spots up front, but we have some younger linemen that we are excited about. It may take them awhile, but we think by the end of the year we can be pretty good up there.”

Kilcrease, who is in his 12th year overall as a head coach and is only eight wins away from career win No. 100, has an athletic senior class leading the way. A majority of them “have a chance” to play college football, especially at a smaller school, said the Purple Cat coach.

“This is our smallest senior class since I have been here as we have 10, but every single one of them are big-time contributors,” Kilcrease said. “That is the difference we have with this senior class than some of the ones in the past.”

The Purple Cats have plenty of weapons to work with on offense, including two all-state honorees in senior running back Jordan Smith and junior quarterback Ian Senn. Both are getting small college interest.

Smith, a powerful 5-foot-8, 185-pound back who was clocked at 4.5 in the 40 at a Troy summer camp, earned second-team all-state running back in Class 2A a year ago after rushing for 1,851 yards and 28 touchdowns, averaging 154.3 yards per game.

“He is a strong as an ox,” Kilcrease said. “He is 550-plus squat guy in the weight room. People hate going up against him in practice because he will not take it easy because you’re his buddy or you are younger. He is full speed all the time. That has paid off. He will get his opportunities at the next level.

“I tell college coaches all the time that 99 percent of his yards have been between the tackles. That is what he is good at. He is physical and he will break that first tackle and explode (downfield). He has good vision and he is patient in setting up his blocks. That was his biggest improvement from his sophomore to junior year – his vision and patience.”

Senn, who enters his third year starting at QB, was a 2A honorable mention all-state last year after throwing for 1,902 yards (158.5 per game) and 18 touchdowns off 118-of-205 passing, while rushing for 356 yards and seven scores.

“No. 1, he is a competitor,” Kilcrease said. “That is what I fell in love with when I first saw him as a seventh grader. He competes in whatever he does. He is probably his toughest critic. He is hard on himself when he makes mistakes. The thing about it for us is he is athletic enough to get out of those mistakes.

“He is an athlete back there. He was sacked only once or twice and a lot of that was his athleticism to escape, but he wasn’t scrambling to run. He kept his head downfield and made some really good throws on the run last year.”

Senn has plenty of options to throw to as the Purple Cats return a bevy of receivers, including leading returners Isaiah Johnson (44 catches, 576 yard, 4 TDs) and Landon Tyler (29 catches, 511 yards, 7 TDs).

“The guys around him can all catch the ball and make plays,” Kilcrease said. “Isaiah Johnson, Andyn Garris, Landon Tyler, Matthew Harrell, Terrell Gilbert. We have a lot of guys that we can get the ball too and that will help. People will not be able to crowd the box.”

All five top receivers are seniors with all but Gilbert starting from last year.

The Purple Cats lost two of their top offensive linemen, including two-time all-state selection Tuff Hand, from last year, but do return starters CJ McNabb (Sr., 5-7, 225) and Christian Brown (Sr., 6-2, 205). Kilcrease expected Luis Lagunes (Jr., 5-9, 230), Jamariion Govan (So., 6-0, 290) and Hobie Peavy (Jr., 5-11, 260) to likely be the other OL starters.

Defensively the story is nearly the same with a lot of skill returning, but not much up front.

The secondary returns Gilbert (Sr., 5-8, 155) at cornerback and Tyler (Sr., 6-3, 180) and Harrell (Sr., 5-9, 165) at safety. Kilcrease said the athletic Senn, who played defense only in critical situations last year, will start at the other cornerback spot.

“I think we will have two of the better corners around in Terrell and Ian,” Kilcrease said. “They are the two best I have had.”

Harrell, Tyler and Gilbert all had three interceptions last year and Gilbert had 14 pass break-ups.

Brox McRae (Jr., 6-0, 160), Myles Tyler (Jr., 6-0, 165) and Coleman Bragg (Sr., 6-1, 175) are others expected to see a lot of playing time in the secondary.

Trevor McLaughlin (Jr., 6-0, 215), McNabb (Sr., 5-7, 225) and Johnson (Sr., 6-2, 195) return as starting linebackers. Johnson is starting for a fourth year.

Ariton lost several key pieces on the defensive line. Brown (Sr., 6-2, 205) is the lone returning starter up front. Corde Scott (So., 6-0, 210) and Govan are expected to move into starting roles.

On special teams, Senn returns as a punter, Garris as the kicker and Tyler is back as the long snapper, though Brown may also do some special teams snapping.

PURPLE CATS AT A GLANCE

Head coach: Steven Kilcrease (7th year at Ariton, 50-22; 12th year as a head coach, 92-38)

2021 record: 10-2 overall, 6-1 in Class 2A, Region 2, second round of Class 2A state playoffs

2021 results: at Dale County (W, 38-27); Goshen (W, 49-0); at Houston County # (W, 49-0); Geneva County # (W, 42-0); G.W. Long # (W, 27-21); Slocomb (W, 38-28); at Abbeville # (W, 49-6); at Zion Chapel # (W, 42-6); at Elba # (L, 25-41); Cottonwood # (W, 59-24). STATE PLAYOFFS: LaFayette (48-20); at Clarke County (L, 20-27)

Points scored/per game: 486/40.5

Points allowed/per game: 200/16.7

Returning offensive starters (8): QB Ian Senn (Jr.., 6-2, 165); RB Jordan Smith (Sr., 5-8, 185); WR Landon Tyler (Sr., 6-3, 180); WR Isaiah Johnson (Sr., 6-2, 195); WR Matthew Harrell (Sr., 5-9, 165); WR Andyn Garris (Sr., 5-5, 155): OL Christian Brown (Sr., 6-2, 205); OL CJ McNabb (Sr., 5-7, 225)

Returning defensive starters (7): DT Christian Brown (Sr., 6-2, 205); LB CJ McNabb (Sr., 5-9, 225); LB Trevor McLaughlin (Jr., 6-0, 215); LB Isaiah Johnson (Sr., 6-2, 195); CB Terrell Gilbert (Sr., 5-8, 155); S Landon Tyler (Sr., 6-3, 180); S Matthew Harrell (Sr., 5-9, 165)

2022 Schedule

Aug. 19 Dale County

Aug. 26 at Highland Home

Sept. 2 at Geneva County #

Sept. 9 G.W. Long #

Sept. 16 Zion Chapel #

Sept. 23 at Straughn

Sept. 30 Cottonwood #

Oct. 7 Abbeville #

Oct. 14 at Wicksburg #

Oct. 21 at Samson #

Oct. 28 Off

# Denotes region contests

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