Johnson at East Hall
When: 7:30 Friday night
Where: East Hall Stadium, Gainesville
Coaches: Johnson, Jason Roquemore; East Hall, Bryan Gray
Records: Johnson (2-5); East Hall (2-4, 1-2 Region 7-AAA)
Key players: Johnson, WR/CB Orion Pittman (6-0, 170 Jr.); OL/LB Jesse Griggs (5-8, 215 Sr.); OL/DL Eli Vasquez (5-10, 240 Jr.). East Hall, QB/DB Devin Watson (5-11, 185 Sr.); RB Jacques Ash (5-11, 190 Sr.); LB Ronnie Peebles (5-11, 210 Sr.).
Read previews from this week's area games here:
Orion Pittman’s face lights up when he thinks about how he witnessed Johnson’s shining moment against cross-town rival East Hall in 2012.
A freshman safety at the time, Pittman was just yards away from senior teammate Kendrick Smith’s crucial interception on the final Vikings drive that sealed a 22-21 win for the Knights.
Pittman didn’t know where he was on the field at that moment.
“I was too busy jumping up and down, man,” he said during a Thursday practice. “I tackled Kendrick. That was one of the most emotional games for me.”
Two years later, Johnson (2-5) has a large task ahead tonight if it expects a repeat performance.
East Hall (2-4, 1-2 Region 7-AAA) is led by senior quarterback Devin Watson (nine passing touchdowns, 1,123 passing yards, six INTs), who led East Hall to a 54-14 win against Johnson last season.
Watson racked up more than 350 all-purpose yards last week in a 51-22 loss to rival West Hall.
The Vikings have given a lot of responsibility to Watson, who has also scrambled for four rushing scores in five games played. Running back Jacques Ash (three TDs) and wide receiver Jiel Vargas (two) have been the only two others to reach the end zone on runs.
East Hall coach Bryan Gray said this week that he had been telling his team to cut out easy turnovers and “get back to basics” of running the football. The Vikings lost three fumbles and threw a crucial interception at the end of the first half last week against West Hall, which gave the Spartans the upper hand.
“Credit goes to West Hall, and Johnson can do stuff like that, as well,” Gray said. “We’ve been talking about that over and over this week. We’ve heavily emphasized not to drop it, because that’s 20 points that could have helped us.”
Johnson, on the other hand, is on a high after two straight wins over Riverside Military Academy and Osborne. After losing the first five games of their season, the Knights have confidence on their side heading into tonight’s game at East Hall Stadium.
Johnson’s defense, led by linemen Eli Vasquez, Andrew Temple and Donyae Brown, gave up just 31 total yards in last week’s 13-0 shutout of Osborne.
Pittman, who’s been a mainstay at cornerback, also caught the lone touchdown pass at home against Riverside — a 48-yard strike to help give Johnson its first taste of victory in 2014.
“Any time you win, it feels good,” Johnson coach Jason Roquemore said. “It validates the work you’ve put in and makes you a little more hungry. We’ve done a good job of executing assignments and tackling in space. It starts up front with us. We’ve done a much better job with our leverage, and that makes it easier on our backers.”
East Hall will need to negate a Johnson rushing attack best encapsulated by senior fullback Jesse Griggs. Griggs carried the ball 27 times for 97 yards against Riverside on Sept. 26 as the Knights slowly picked up short gain after short gain. Griggs later punched the game-winning score in from 10 yards out midway through the fourth quarter.
East Hall will rely on linebackers Juwon Merrit and Ronnie Peebles to break down Roquemore’s run-heavy approach. Merrit and Peebles have combined for 85 total tackles, including 62 solo tackles.
“We know that Johnson is vastly improved,” Gray said. “Their kids play as hard for 48 minutes as any around. They milk the clock and run it, and they’re very talented to have beaten a really good team in Riverside and control the game against Osborne.”
Gray said he did not know how healthy Watson would be for Friday’s opener. The quarterback missed Thursday’s practice with a migraine.
East Hall still needs to “put a whole game together,” according to Gray, who said he hadn’t seen all three phases of offense, defense and special teams click so far this season. The Vikings, playing their final non-region opponent of the season, will have their last opportunity to do so before next week’s region game against Franklin County.
If Johnson can continue finding success in its run packages, Pittman will have a better chance to help secure the team’s third consecutive win in four weeks.
“We’re just trying to focus and get these last three (wins) now,” Pittman said. “I think we’ve been relaxed. We had been trying to do too much and think too much, and now we’re just playing our game.”