Thanks to a surplus of skilled receivers on both teams, the passing games at Cleveland and East Hamilton have really caught on.
The Blue Raiders and Hurricanes will meet on a football field for a second time this season when East Hamilton (10-2) hosts Cleveland (9-3) in a TSSAA Class 5A quarterfinal tonight at 7.
The winner will play at either Anderson County or Knoxville West in a semifinal next Friday.
Cleveland's offense is directed by the Chattanooga area's leading passer, senior Austin Herink, who has thrown for 3,013 yards. East Hamilton senior Hunter Moore, who has committed to Central Arkansas, is a close second with 2,982 passing yards.
And both are quick to give credit to the route-runners and speed-burners catching those passes.
"We've got everything you need," Herink said. "It's been fun having these guys to throw to. It's cool how things have come together. We throw a lot of screens, and you give these guys a block or two and they're gone. Our outside guys make people miss. Our inside guys block really well. They've meshed really well together."
Cleveland likes to operate from a set with two wide receivers and two slot receivers. Five Blue Raiders have at least 227 receiving yards, although one, junior Eric Goodwin (36 receptions, 365 yards), is done for the season with a broken collarbone.
"They're well-coached and they've got a lot of good athletes," East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood said. "They've been in that system for two years now, pretty much. Everybody contributes in their package."
Senior D.J. Jones has proven to be Herink's go-to receiver. Sixteen of his 61 catches have gone for touchdowns.
"We just mainly run our routes and try to get to the point where we need to be," Jones said. "Most of us are open every play. We can do almost anything we want to. We just have to execute."
Senior Tyler Davis heads the Cleveland group in receiving yardage with 1,025.
"We just try to put ourselves in position to succeed," Davis said. "We've done really well at keeping the other teams guessing."
Many of Jones' 866 receiving yards have come after hauling in short passes. And he's not the only one.
"Once they catch it, the play's not over," Gatewood said. "You better come up and make the tackle."
East Hamilton's offensive look is a little different, but results are quite similar. Seven Hurricanes have at least 187 receiving yards.
Moore's main target has been deep threat Tony Francois, who has 1,294 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. He's averaging 30.8 yards on his 42 catches.
"We just call the play and he tries to outrun them," Moore said of how the two have hooked up multiple times for long scoring plays this season. "It's not really anything special."
Francois said his only goal coming into his senior season was to do better than the year before. Coach Gatewood has opened the offense more this season, in large part because of the graduation of 1,400-yard rusher Logan Jackson.
"It's kind of just evolved as the season has gone along," Francois said of the air-raid attack. "I'm kind of glad we're throwing the ball more. It gets me more involved."
Tre Herndon has added 417 yards on 30 receptions, including a 65-yarder right before halftime that along with Casey Malone's extra-point kick proved to be the winning margin when East Hamilton beat Cleveland 21-20 on Oct. 4.
"I think to start with you have to watch Francois and Herndon, and not only on the deep ball," Cleveland coach Ron Crawford said. "Herndon beat us with a hitch route. We didn't touch him, and that was the play that won the game."
Junior Matt Milita has contributed 299 receiving yards out of the backfield for the 'Canes, whose passing attack also involves senior University of Tennessee at Chattanooga-bound tight end Bailey Lenoir. Senior Austin Gatewood has gained notoriety as an outside linebacker, but he's chipped in with 268 receiving yards.
"Gatewood made a huge third-down catch on us," Crawford said. "He's more athletic than he's given credit for, and he's a coach's kid. He understands concepts and stuff. Lenoir gives you someone else to deal with. They're going to threaten you vertically and look for spaces underneath. It's challenging."
Credit should go to both team's defenses for holding the opposition scoreless in the second half in the earlier meeting. Now it's time for the offenses to counter adjust.
Whatever game plans the offensive coaching staffs come up with, don't expect any dialing back on the aerial assaults that have helped Cleveland average 35 points per game and East Hamilton average 31.
Herndon, who has committed to Vanderbilt where he's expected to play defensive back, may not get the opportunity to return any kicks tonight since he ran a kickoff back for a TD last time, but he should have plenty of opportunities to showcase many of his talents.
"They do have a tough receiving corps," Herndon said. "Our strategy is just to try and contain them, whatever it takes. This is a big game in the playoffs. It's a big matchup. There are going to be some big opportunities for the DBs."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow him at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or email@example.com.
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