High School Football

Blythewood visits Beaufort High for Eagles' return to playoffs

sfastenau@beaufortgazette.comNovember 15, 2013 

Behind the running of Eric Blakely (8), Beaufort High School is back in the playoffs.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Staff photo Buy Photo

After the Beaufort High School football team missed the playoffs in 2012, its second consecutive year outside the postseason, the talk of change began.

The proposed moves weren't immediately welcomed by Eagles coach Mark Clifford. Coaches were frustrated with losing, but he had always run the same things.

Clifford and receivers coach Bryan Merrick, who played quarterback for Clifford at Sumter, favored keeping the split backs and quarterback under center.

Quarterbacks coach Scott Lopatka and offensive line coach Logan Powell pushed for the Eagles to operate out of the shotgun.

A consensus was reached, Clifford moved to the 'gun, and Beaufort High's refurbished offense helped lead it here. The Eagles will host Blythewood on Friday to open the Class 4-A Division II playoffs.

"I started seeing that thing," Clifford said of the new look. "I kept looking at it and kept looking at it and said 'This thing's about as fast as being under.' "

The move to shotgun helped open running lanes for quarterback Ben Vaigneur, who finished as the Eagles' third-leading rusher with 204 yards and second on the team with four touchdowns.

And running back Eric Blakely, who Clifford points out wasn't the leading rusher on junior varsity the previous season, emerged to rush for 1,354 yards during the regular season and 18 touchdowns. Clifford attributed Blakely's improvement in part to Beaufort High's strength program and the running back's improved confidence.

And the other running back position was taken over by an opportunistic sophomore who forced coaches to pay attention early in the year.

Jeffrey Tookes was almost written off for his size -- at only 5-foot-8 and 135 pounds. But he inserted himself into the spring game, according to Clifford's version, and broke off a huge gain on a counter play.

He was always on the coach's hip, ready for more action. And with the Eagles down a running back during the preseason, Tookes became the guy.

He rushed for 744 yards and three touchdowns to complement Blakely. Clifford prefers the shared load and was happy for the depth after JaClay Mixon handled the bulk of the rushing in 2012.

"Now you've got them and Ben," Clifford said. "You've got three backs in there you've got to pay attention to."

Now comes the chess match.

Clifford said he has been guilty in the past of trying to change things too much for one game, afraid the defense will be loaded to stop his tendencies. He said the Eagles rolled out some new packages against Colleton County during the regular season finale and might offer another tweak or two for the Bengals.

But he's happy with the base offense.

"It's fast getting on the corner and hitting it up in there," Clifford said. "Eric loves it, and Ben loves it, and Tookes loves it."

Class 4-A Division II playoffs

No. 11 Blythewood (7-4, 3-2 Region 4-AAAA) at No. 6 Beaufort High (8-3, 3-2 Region 8-AAAA), 7:30 p.m.

Last meeting: First meeting

The skinny: The Bengals finished third in Region 4, behind Spring Valley and Irmo. Blythewood was the Class 3-A state championship in 2006. Beaufort High is in the playoffs for the first time since 2010, when it lost to Easley in the first round. The Eagles won four of their five home games during the regular season, including the past three.

Players to watch: Bengals LB Jalen Williams is committed to Clemson and was a North-South All-Star selection. Blythewood DB Aaron Peak also earned a spot on the team. Beaufort High RBs Eric Blakely and Jeffrey Tookes combined to rush for more than 2,000 yards during the regular season. Blakely has 18 touchdowns.

Keys to the game: Beaufort coach Mark Clifford said Blythewood is strong on special teams and that the Eagles couldn't afford special teams mistakes like what cost them in a loss at Ashley Ridge. The Beaufort High defense will again be asked to stop a pass-heavy offense.

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