'Dogs face tough C-Gap passing game

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR
jcombs@starhq.com
Spearheaded by the highly-polished skills of senior quarterback Corey Russell, the Cumberland Gap passing game is capable of piercing through a defense like the pointed end of a loose nail through a rubber tire.
The Hampton Bulldogs must contain this attack or seriously risk dropping their third straight contest.
"If we don't move a little in the defensive backfield, Cumberland Gap will have over 500 yards of passing on us," said Hampton coach J.C. Campbell. "We can't just stand around back there."
Hampton visits Cumberland Gap this Friday night for a Watauga Conference football matchup. The 'Dogs take a 1-2, 3-4 record into the contest, while the Panthers check in at 2-1, 5-2.
The Panthers boast the league's top-rated offense, averaging 281.1 yards a game, and Russell is the leading key to that success. Directing a passing attack that ranks No. 1 in the conference -- gaining an average of 141.4 yards per game -- Russell has thrown for 990 yards and nine touchdowns while serving up only three interceptions.
"That old quarterback is about as good as you can ask for in high school," Campbell said. "He puts it up there with touch. The best thing about him is that when you rush him, he doesn't grab that ball and take off running. He just steps sideways and throws the ball. And he can throw standing and he can throw rolling out."
Dependable pass-catchers for the Panthers appear in the form of Caleb Medley, the Watauga's second-leading receiver with 22 grabs (for 479 yards and four touchdowns), and Ryan Overton, who has 10 receptions for 270 yards and two TDs.
While the offense attracts most of the spotlight for Cumberland Gap, a first-year school made up chiefly of former Powell Valley players, the Panthers do a commendable job on the other side of the ball.
"They're not stinky-poo on defense," Campbell said.
Linebackers Trevor Hester and Zeth Clemons, and defensive back Jed Rowlett (2 interceptions) play significant roles for Cumberland Gap, which is minus the services of stud linebacker/tailback Tyler Francisco.
Francisco, set to miss his third straight game with a shoulder injury, was averaging 17 tackles a game and 10.3 yards per carry before being struck by misfortune. He still ranks fifth in conference rushing with 465 yards.
Even without Francisco, the Panthers are a fine team.
"I think we've improved from week one all the way through," said Cumberland Gap coach DeLynn Cline, whose club beat Thomas Walker (Va.) 42-7 last week. "We've got a lot of inexperience. We won a few games early, but we started out a little slower than we had hoped. But these kids have worked extra hard and keep getting better. This is a fun bunch to work with."
Losing to Gatlinburg-Pittman before dropping a 35-8 decision to Happy Valley, Hampton is a team coming off tough conference defeats. With that in mind, the 'Dogs truly need a win to keep their season from perhaps coming unglued, and to solidify their hopes for a playoff berth.
"I think we'll come back and play hard," Campbell said. "I think we'll give good effort."
Cline expects to encounter the type of Bulldog team he became accustomed to facing during his coaching days at Powell Valley.
"Several years ago we were in the same region with Hampton," Cline said. "They still have the same tradition -- they're a big, strong, hard-nosed football team -- well-disciplined. Coach Campbell always does a good job with them. Solid as usual is the best way to put it."
Friday night's matchup certainly creates a clash of offensive styles.
While the 'Dogs have proved they can move the ball through the air, they prefer to repeatedly punish teams with the ground game.
"Hampton, more than I've ever seen them, has the ability to throw the ball this year," Cline said. "For us to be successful, though, we're going to have to make them throw it a little bit. If they end up running it 60 times, we're in trouble."
The 'Dogs will try to get their running game, their passing game and everything else in order following a subpar performance against Happy Valley. For that to happen, said Campbell, his best players must rise to the occasion.
"We need a whole team effort, but our best players are going to have to play like our best players," he said. "If I can't tell my best players from my average players, then we're not going to do anything.
"I thought we gave a good effort against Gatlinburg-Pittman. We just weren't strong enough physically and we got some bad breaks from the officiating, and this, that and the other. But I don't think our good players played very well the other night (vs. HV)."
Notes
* Gene Sanchez, who's been gaining more playing time in the Hampton secondary, will not play against C-Gap. He injured an ankle in junior varsity play on Monday night.
* Sean Moody is pacing the 'Dogs in tackles with 59. Justin Waycaster (47), Donny Singleton (46), Dustin Crumley (42) and Eddie Lance (41) round out the top five.
* Jacob Moss is tops in scoring for Hampton with 24 points, while Cody Walsh and Mitchell Morton, each with 18 points, are tied for second.