When Danny Horn took over the Clay Central football program prior to the 2018 season there was at least one aspect of his wildly successful run at Clay County that he wanted to recreate at his new school.
“We didn’t win it every year, but we had a say-so in who won it. And that’s what I’m hoping to establish here,” Horn said. “Obviously we’re not going to win it every year. We may not win it again. We may not get in this game again. Who knows? We want to have a say-so of who wins it, and that’s about all you can ask.”
Horn’s Volunteers have not lost a playoff game under his watch and will definitely have a say-so in the 5A state championship story for the second straight season after they blanked Mortimer Jordan 27-0 in the state semifinals last Friday.
That victory avenged a week-six loss to the Blue Devils and put Central in the 5A state championship game against Pleasant Grove Thursday at 7 p.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn.
Mortimer Jordan quarterback Kourtlan Marsh, who carved up Central on the ground and through the air in the teams’ first meeting, was hobbled by a foot injury and was unable to orchestrate his team’s offense at its usual high level. Horn acknowledged the impact of Marsh’s injury, but said that doesn’t mean the win for Central requires an asterisk.
“Obviously they weren’t nearly as effective offensively without him in there, and that’s understandably so,” Horn said. “But at the same time I thought we played well. We still had to stop the run, which we did. It was actually a great defensive effort.”
Central limited the Blue Devils to just 25 rushing yards and 99 yards total to post its fourth shutout of the season.
Meanwhile Central running back Quentin Knight continued his role as one of the most reliably effective backs in the state. He ran for 118 yards and a touchdown to put himself over the 2,000-yard mark for the season, the first time any Central back has eclipsed that mark. Knight has run for at least 100 yards or at least one touchdown in every game this season and has accomplished both of those marks in all but three games.
The Central running game has also received a late-season boost from J.D. McNealey, and Friday was no exception. McNealey ran for 71 yards and two touchdowns against Mortimer Jordan and has rushed for 216 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries in the playoffs. That’s after he carried the ball just 17 times in 10 regular season games.
McNealey is a centerpiece of the Central defense as the team’s starting inside linebacker, and a preseason foot injury helped contribute to his limited involvement on offense during the regular season. But now that he’s healthy he has become something a secret weapon when Central has the ball. He has been used primarily in the second half of games as a fresh set of legs after Knight has already punished opposing defenses with his physical style of running.
“It took him several games probably in his mind to get his confidence back once he found out the foot was okay,” Horn said of McNealey. “As the year went on we started playing him a little bit more on offense, a little bit more on special teams. And then obviously when you get to the playoffs it’s a one-game season then, so you’ve got to get your best players out there. He’s been playing a lot more offensively and been doing a really good job. He runs the ball really hard, and he’s hard to bring down. He’s been a big asset to us on offense.”
Central is going to need that same type of productivity on the ground in Thursday’s title game. One of Horn’s primary objectives is to dominate possession of the football against Pleasant Grove, much like the Vols did in last year’s nailbiter of a win over Vigor in the title game.
“I think it’s big for us to control the ball a little bit,” Horn said. “Last year we ran 71 plays and Vigor ran like 49. That was a big key for us, keeping their offense off the field.”
Not that that task will fall completely on the shoulders of the Central running game. The Vols have been balanced on offense all year thanks to the solid quarterback play of Boyd Ogles. It was no different in Friday’s win as Ogles completed 12-of-21 passes for 120 yards without an interception. Javon Wood caught seven of those completions for 85 yards and has been the Volunteers’ best receiver all season.
And we haven’t even mentioned a defense led by McNealey and defensive lineman Davion Phillips, both of whom came up big in last year’s state title game against Vigor. That defense has had its lapses this year, but since the mid-season loss to Mortimer Jordan the Vols have given up an average of just under nine points per game. It’s a unit that has allowed just five touchdowns in four playoff games thus far.
“We’ll have to play well to win. That’s no secret. But we’ve played well the last couple of games, so maybe we can do it one more time,” Horn said.
And then there’s Horn himself, who stands at the threshold of yet another level of greatness. He has already eclipsed 300 career victories, and if he wins the championship this week it will be the eighth of his career, tying him with Hoover’s Josh Niblett for the most in AHSAA history. (Robby James has nine state titles, but they were won at AISA schools.)
“A lot of coaches have told me, well, if I wasn’t going to win it I would just as soon get beat in the first or second round,” Horn said. “I don’t believe in that. I believe you go as far as you can go. If I’m going to get beat I hope it’s in the championship game every year. At least I’m in it. Obviously you want to win because nobody really remembers who the runner up is. I’m just glad to have an opportunity to play for another one.”