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The Southern Nash High varsity football team already possesses a potent running game to go along with a hard-hitting defense. It’s a basic gridiron formula that has the Firebirds situated at No. 7 in the latest North Carolina Associated Press 3-A poll.
But should Southern continue to refine a special teams unit that has produced big plays in all of its Big East Conference games to date, then the Firebirds could be playing football deep into November.
Sophomore Quinton Cooley ran back his second punt return for a touchdown in as many weeks, and the Firebirds tacked on a blocked punt and a kickoff return for a score as Southern Nash obliterated Hunt (2-7, 0-3 Big East) in every phase Friday night during a 56-7 victory in Warrior Stadium.
“You hate to see a score like that,” Southern Nash head coach Brian Foster said. “And I think a lot of (Hunt) Coach (Keith) Byrum. And I’ve been there and done that. It’s just a tough situation when you don’t know what to do. I don’t like scores like that.”
Southern Nash, which improved to 8-1 overall and 3-0 in Big East play, has now outscored three conference opponents by a combined 153-17 margin. In that span, the Firebirds have accumulated five touchdowns on special teams through two blocked punts, two punt returns and a kickoff return.
Already leading 7-0 against Hunt after senior Dae’One Wilkins scored on a 7-yard run, the Firebirds defense forced a quick three and out. The ensuing punt hopped along the ground, where Wilkins and Cooley stood watch. Wilkins encouraged Cooley to pick it up, and Cooley darted through the middle on his way to a 73-yard return TD. The PAT made it 14-0.
“At first, I wasn’t going to pick it up,” Cooley said. “But my teammate, Dae’One Wilkins, said, ‘Pick it up! Pick it up!’ The dude overran it, and I picked it up. (Wilkins) told me I could get it, and I scored from there.”
Directly or indirectly, special teams played a role in Southern Nash’s next two scores. Before the end of the first quarter, an anemic Hunt offense was again forced to punt. The snap was low to senior Deshawn Jackson, who was promptly buried for a loss of 11 yards. On the next play, Firebirds senior running back Zonovan Knight took a jet sweep 18 yards, putting Southern up 21-0 before the end of the first quarter. The second blocked punt in three weeks for Southern Nash was turned in by Wilkins. His early second quarter block was picked up by senior Cory Foster, and his 22-yard runback made it 28-0 Firebirds.
Hunt was held to just 18 yards total offense and totaled minus-29 yards at halftime. The Warriors had just one first down in the opening half, granted only by a borderline roughing-the-passer penalty.
“We wanted to make them have to really earn points that they got,” Byrum said. “And we had — I’ll have to go back and look at it — we had probably five or six special-team miscues that turned into touchdowns, either immediately or on the very next play. And that’s something that we haven’t been doing. We’ve done a pretty good job with the special teams most of the year, particularly the punt game. One of our big goals all week was let’s not let that be the way they score. If they’re going to score points, let’s make it be by driving the field, by chewing up clock.”
The Firebirds forced the running clock before halftime, using a 7-yard run from senior Kendrick Bell and a 1-yard plunge by senior Kelvin Whitaker in the final minute of the half to make it 42-0. Southern’s last touchdown of the half was set up by a Hunt interception, which was returned by senior Kevin Terrell 34 yards to the Hunt 10-yard line.
Knight, who finished with eight carries for 66 yards, opened the second half with an electric 93-yard kickoff return.
“We put a little extra time in it and it’s paid off for us,” Foster said of special teams work. “And we’re going to need that. We’ve got to get everybody back healthy.”
Senior Nadir Thompson served as the Firebirds quarterback in the absence of Lorenzo Sessoms due to injury. The Firebirds ran a spread package with Thompson in the shotgun for the opening series before reverting back to the double wing.
Hunt averted the shutout, using a 12-yard burst from senior Javal Bowens with 11:41 to play. Bowens, who didn’t have a carry in the first half despite being on the field, had five touches for 33 yards in the abbreviated second half.
Bell led Southern Nash on the ground, accounting for 69 yards on 11 carries. Senior Jack Vick’s 29-yard scoring scamper with 6:46 left in the third made it 56-0 Firebirds.