Whale Branch Football Preview: Eric Saunders
Though Whale Branch’s strength lies in the trenches this season, much of the Warriors’ focus this summer has been on taking things outside.
Coach Jerry Hatcher is changing up the offense for 2016, integrating more of a spread attack with an eye on getting past the second round of the Class 2A playoffs.
“We’ve got to get (defenses) out of the box,” Hatcher said. “So we’re going to throw it more this year. We’re going to try to spread them out a little bit. As we get in the playoffs, we need to create mismatches. That’s where it’s kind of evolved.”
The change, he said, has its roots in Whale Branch’s past two playoff runs, both of which ended one step shy of the Lower State final. The Warriors managed only 21 points between the two games, including last year’s 20-14 loss to Marion, as their run-heavy attack faced a consistent eight-man front.
“As you get deeper (into the bracket), you run into more physical teams,” Hatcher explained. “People were packing the box. If we can’t score but 14 points in a game like the Lower State semifinals, then we have to change.”
The Warriors still figure to run often enough, with big Irvan Mulligan returning from a freshman season in which he averaged 6.9 yards per carry. That should ease some of the pressure on quarterback Marion Smalls as he works with a crop of speedy but inexperienced receivers.
“If we can get those guys to come around and keep them injury free,” Hatcher said, “we’ve got a shot at our region.”
Hatcher shouldn’t have to worry about his linemen, where six seniors will do the heavy lifting. Caleb Hill (315 pounds) and Cameron Wilson are both set to be four-year starters, with help from Chris Wilson and Eric Saunders.
Even with the dominating Nyles Pinckney now at Clemson, it’s definitely a position of strength.
“I can find plenty of skill guys at our school, but you’ve got to find those linemen,” Hatcher said. “I’m as close as I’ve ever been.”
Hatcher’s other concern comes in special teams, where repeated miscues in kick coverage led to several big plays for opponents. That includes the Warriors’ playoff loss.
“I can identify three games last year where we lost directly because of special teams,” Hatcher said. “We’ve got to do a better job on special teams.”
Whale Branch Warriors
REGION: Class 2A, Region 6
COACH: Jerry Hatcher (fifth year, 24-21)
2015 RECORD: 6-6 (3-2 Region 6-2A)
PLAYOFFS: Lost to Marion in Class 2A-2 quarterfinals
KEY RETURNERS: RB Irvan Mulligan, OL/DL Caleb Hill, OL Cameron Wilson, OL/DL Chris Wilson, OL/LB Eric Saunders
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The Warriors stay healthy through their early season slate of deeper Beaufort County foes, allowing the new offense to gel before they hit region play. Back on their own level, another playoff berth seems likely — perhaps this time with a longer stay.
- Aug. 19: Open
- Sept. 26: at Hilton Head, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 2: at May River, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 9: at Beaufort, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 16: vs. Battery Creek, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 23: vs. Bluffton, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 30: vs. Woodland, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 7: at North Charleston, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 14: vs. Academic Magnet, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 21: at Garrett Tech, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 28: vs. Burke, 7:30 p.m.