Finishing in second place in your district and hosting a playoff game would be considered a successful season in the eyes of many high school football teams. Not for tradition-rich Clarksdale High School.
The Wildcats (5-7, 3-1 in 2017) were one game away from the Region 3-4A championship crown, but dropped their home playoff game to Corinth, 14-7. Clarksdale had an opportunity to win the district title in the final regular-season game, but lost at home to Region 3-4A champion Greenwood.
Clarksdale coach Henry Johnson has reminded his team of its performance in 2017 as motivation and called the first-round playoff loss an upset.
“It’s just that expectation was so high that season that we felt like a second-place finish or a first-round upset was an underachievement for our team last year,” Johnson said. “We kind of used that as motivation for this year’s team to do better.”
In 2017, the Wildcats opened against four Class 6A schools – Warren Central, Greenville, Tupelo and South Panola – and one 5A school, Cleveland Central, to get off to a 1-4 start.
While those were non-district games, Johnson believes the losses hurt his athletes’ confidence. This year may be different.
“One good thing is the kids know the experience of what we’re up against,” Johnson said. “It’s one thing for me to tell them. It’s another thing for them to experience it, so a lot of guys that played last year went through that experience. We’ve got to get through it one day at a time.
“If you do your best in those non-district games, grow and get better, don’t let it take a mental toll on you. That’s the biggest thing, the mental toll that it does. You get through it, get to division and win your division. That’s the goal.”
As the Wildcats look to make improvements, they will be doing so with mostly new starters and feature multiple offensive formations, including four-receiver wide, two-receiver wide, three-receiver wide, two backs, tight end and two tight ends.
One returning starter is senior quarterback Cameron Matthews. He opened 2017 as a running back, but moved to quarterback halfway through the season. He was 12 of 26 passing for 277 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in 2017. He had 77 carries for 483 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“Cam, his strength of running the ball is a little bit stronger than his passing game,” Johnson said. “We’re going to try and be as balanced as possible, run and pass. He can hand it off and he can run it. He has the ability to run the football. We’re going to definitely use our strengths. We want to be multi. We want to be run and pass. We’re going to do what best fits our personnel.”
Johnson said Matthews should be able to get the job done passing if defenses stack the line.
“We feel like he can do that well enough,” Johnson said. “What helped him was he started five or six games last year and he won some games last year.”
No matter who the quarterback is, the Wildcats will place an emphasis on the ground game.
“I’m probably always run-oriented,” Johnson said. “We feel like our offensive line is pretty strong, too. We feel like we will be able to run the ball.”
Senior right tackle Josh Johnson, junior right guard Kaleb Brown, senior center Justin Taylor, senior left guard Cordarrius Conner and senior left tackle Alex Carver are the offensive linemen.
“We didn’t have a back rush for 400 yards last year, so that’s not all on the running back,” Johnson said. “That’s on most of that offensive line we had last year. And all of those guys were seniors.”
Several running backs shared the load last season as 2017 seniors Jimmy Hankins and Jaylin Mullins suffered injuries.
Running backs for 2018 are senior Antwan Wheeler, who had 44 rushes for 114 yards and two touchdowns in 2017; junior Queston Skipper, who had eight rushes for 111 yards and one touchdown; senior Trejan Latham; and sophomores Sammie Ray and D.K. Bays.
Skipper is also a slot receiver and Bays is a receiver. Sophomore Quintarius Lester is a wide receiver.
Latham and Lorenzo Perez are fullbacks, while Perez will also be at tight end. Alexavier Stevenson and Josh Hollins are wide receivers and tight ends.
“I think our offense this year is more explosive,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve got speed on offense.”
The Wildcats will be running a 4-3 defense and have three returning defensive starters for the second straight season. The defense was still seen as the strong point one year ago.
“We stepped it up,” Johnson said.
This year’s returning defensive starters are senior strong safety Marquavius Williams, who had 45 tackles and one interception in 2017; Latham at linebacker coming off of a 112-tackle season; and outside linebacker Kevin Smith, who had 73 tackles and one sack.
“I feel good about defense,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a lot of new faces, but we’ve got a lot of kids that played some last year.”
The junior varsity went 7-1 last season and many of those athletes will be asked to step up on Friday nights.
“We don’t have a lot of returning starters back on either side of the ball, but I think the quality of kids that we’ve got that played JV football, I think they’re ready to play,” Johnson said.
Junior Zeilon Chestnut started on the offensive line last year and is moving to defensive tackle for 2018.
Junior cornerback Chris Williams, sophomore cornerback Jamarius Dorsey, senior free safety Demetric Strong, sophomore middle linebacker De’meric Strong, senior defensive end Deajon Sonley, junior defensive end Trashun Chapple and junior defensive end Jordan Thomas are all expected to see significant action on defense.
Senior Kylon Lampkin has been the kicker since his freshman year. He has connected on kicks from 37 yards out during practice.
“We’re going to kick it,” Johnson said. “He can make it from 20 yards out.”
Hollins was the starting punter on the JV last year. He is now the starting punter for the varsity team.
Skipper, Wheeler, Bays, Ray and Lester will all be kick returners, while Marquavius Williams and Demetric Strong will be returning punts.
Greenwood and Tunica Rosa Fort are expected to be some of Clarksdale’s tough divisional opponents.
“You can’t sleep on Tunica,” Johnson said. “They’ve got a tough group.”
Johnson is confident the Wildcats will be successful in 2018.
“If everything goes well, I think we’ve got a solid group of kids,” he said. “We’re young in a lot of areas and they’re going to have to grow up, but I think we’ve got a real solid group of seniors and juniors and sophomores and freshmen. This could be the year. I hope it is.”