KHS-Palestine GTW

Kilgore’s Jackson Harris (72), Peyton Christian (24) and Zaelen Matthews (96) are part of a defensive front that terrorizes opponents every Friday night in this 2021 season. The Bulldogs, 4-1, are off this week, and continue District 9-4A, Division I play next Friday night at Mabank.

On many of the Kilgore Bulldogs’ open dates during his tenure as athletic director and head coach, Mike Vallery used to famously declare, with a laugh, that “There’s no way the Bulldogs are gonna lose this week – I guarantee it!”

That’s true, there will be no result of record this weekend for Kilgore, because the Bulldogs are in fact off this week after blistering Palestine, 35-6, in the district opener for both teams last weekend.

In fact, except for one head-scratching homecoming-game loss to Pine Tree that the ‘Dogs would love to have back, Kilgore has done a lot right in this, the first year for coach Clint Fuller to lead the program. Consider:

  • The losses to graduation the Ragin’ Red had: its all-time record-setting quarterback (Dalton McElyea), the majority of offensive linemen that had experience, the loss of a college football quality defensive back (Donovan Adkins), a sure-handed receiver that doubled as a heck of a punter (Cade Pippen), and a running back that also put his name in the KHS record book (Tray Epps).
  • A change of direction at the top, with coach Mike Wood deciding it was time after a decade as head coach, and a quarter-century on the sidelines with the Bulldogs, to embrace the role of director of athletics, for which he has shown such dignity and promise.
  • The pressure of simply being Kilgore, a team with a target on its back, year-in and year-out, because of the success it has had. The Bulldogs are a bit of a victim of their own success, having made the playoffs every single season except two since 1995.

Fuller has brought an enthusiasm as the leader of the Ragin’ Red and it has been infectious, his players buying into what he and the coaches are teaching. The balanced attack that McElyea and Wood enjoyed last year has continued this season, largely not just because of the personnel being solid – players like quarterback Da’Marion Van Zandt, center Alex Cervantes, running back Davin Rider, receivers like Matthew Tyeskie, Jermaine Roney and so many others – but because of continuity in the coaching ranks. Fuller didn’t replace coaches; he retained them, and that, combined with the talent, has produced amazing results.

Same thing on the defensive side. There’s talent everywhere, too many to mention, really, and it’s a defense that could carry the Bulldogs a long, long way.

Now, that line.

One of the question marks for Kilgore before the season began was how the offensive line would retool, after so much talent was lost to graduation. That question has been answered: a good grade. The Bulldogs’ offensive line has many pieces: Cervantes, McCabe Wheeler, Justin Flores, Jared Rich, just to name a few. And all the pieces have helped the Bulldogs to 1,207 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns so far this season, and to 649 passing yards, and four more scores.

Another question mark: Van Zandt, because of McElyea’s great play in 2020, didn’t get just a ton of playing time. But Van Zandt is cool as a cucumber under pressure, and when he has been hit, he’s gotten back up and delivered – against Pine Tree, Van Zandt was knocked around a bit. But on one occasion, got to his feet and threw a touchdown pass on the very next play, then pumped his fist, a moment of excitement from a quarterback who brings a big arm and a calm demeanor to the field for coach Fuller.

Van Zandt has completed 46-of-80 passes for 649 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. So far this season, he’s the only Bulldog that has thrown a pass.

Roney leads the Bulldogs with 14 catches, and those were for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Dadrian Franklin is next, with nine catches for 85 yards and a score. Corey Rider, Matthew Tyeskie, and Davin Rider each have five catches – Corey Rider for 165 yards, Davin Rider for 90 yards, and Tyeskie for 31 yards. P.J. Wiley and Isaiah Ross each have three catches – Ross for 54 yards and Wiley for 16 – and Jacob Caruthers has one catch for 3 yards, and a two point conversion. Zaylon Stoker had his first catch of the season last week, a 31-yarder against Palestine.

The running game has been Davin Rider getting through the holes to that second level, and then just rolling over people. Rider has 736 yards and 13 touchdowns (already!) on just 57 carries – he’s averaging 12.9 yards a carry. Ross has rushed 38 times for 283 yards and two scores. Matthew Hardy has came on lately, and has 25 carries for 148 yards and a score. Devin Walker, a move-in from Gladewater, scored against his former school and has 21 yards on four carries. Roney has 7 yards on four carries, Franklin, 6 yards on two carries and Van Zandt, 6 yards rushing, but three touchdowns.

Fuller is active on Twitter and almost always is touting his players. A recent Tweet honored kicker Chris Baldazo, a senior who has added his name to the great KHS kickers of the past. Baldazo is 2-of-4 in field goals this year, with the two both being over 40 yards, and he’s 22-of-25 in extra point attempts.

Punter Jose Jaime has done a nice job, as well. He’s punted just 11 times in five games, but is averaging 33 yards a punt.

Defensively, through five games, Kilgore has nine sacks, 19 quarterback hurries, five fumble recoveries, four forced fumbles, 12 pass break-ups, three blocked kicks, three interceptions (one each by Chris Ervin, Daverion Franklin and Corey Rider), and has only been penalized eight times all season.

Kilgore has allowed 1,708 total yards (about 340 a game) and forced 12 three-and-outs.

Ervin leads the team in tackles (33), with Kendall Dunn a close second (30). Jackson Harris, Peyton Christian, and Alex Chavez each have two tackles for loss.

So, looking ahead: the Bulldogs – ranked number 10, by the way, in the Dave Campbell’s Texas Football Class 4A, Division I poll – visit Mabank next week, then host Chapel Hill on Oct. 15, in a game that looms large on the schedule right now, simply because Kilgore and CHHS seem to be the class of the District 9-4A, DI group.

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