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Coach Dan Duff puts his Wildcats through up-downs for not hustling enough during preseason practice. They're hosting Giles County in a playoff game tonight.

It's said sometimes about a particular athlete in a team sport that as he or she goes, so goes the team. Hixson quarterback LaDaquis Word personifies that.

Word and his Wildcats teammates will be home tonight for a TSSAA Class 4A football playoff game against Giles County (7-3) at 7 p.m.

Hixson (6-4) knew its fate after winning at Livingston Academy on Oct. 21 in its final Region 3 game of the season.

"I couldn't stop thinking about it," Word said about his first playoff action. "I'm a four-year starter at quarterback and still hadn't been to the playoffs. I was about to start crying. I didn't believe it."

Word's prep career began at Brainerd. He spent two seasons there and then his mother decided to move, leaving him a decision to make.

"When Mom decided to move, I had the choice to go to Hixson or Brainerd," Word said. "I chose Hixson. I wanted to try something different."

Along the lines of trying something different, Hixson coach Dan Duff felt the need to do something after his team got off to an 0-2 start that went on to become 0-3. But in that third game, a 12-point loss to eventual region champion Stone Memorial (10-0), the Wildcats made an adjustment with their offense, getting Word out from under center.

"We were doing the same things, just backing him up in a pistol formation to better suit his skill set," Duff said. "They were the same plays, but you've got to run them a little different when you're backed off. He was able to be a lot more comfortable backed off a little. We saw improvement from the start."

That improvement translated to six consecutive victories before a loss at Class 5A Soddy-Daisy last week. The Wildcats went from scoring 20 total points in their first three games to averaging 27 points per game since.

Word can't take all the credit, and doesn't try to. While he is a dual-threat player on the field, neither his running ability nor his passing ability is what Duff considers his best asset.

"He's a good leader," Duff said in identifying Word's best quality. "And he's humble."

The humility might explain why he's such good friends with classmate Brody Gregory, a career-long starter as an offensive lineman. Word said the two talked early in the season and decided the team would benefit by more players hanging out with each other away from the game.

Word believes that was another factor in getting things turned around.

"I knew we weren't that bad of a team," he said.

The Wildcats are nowhere near the 2-8 team they were last year. They are a band of 35 players, 13 of them seniors.

"We've got a good senior group," Duff said. "They're going to be able to go out on a good note. It's been a fun year — a lot of accomplishments. We would love to win a playoff game. But no matter what, they're going out on a positive note."

And Word can take comfort knowing he'll not only get to compete in the playoffs, he's a big reason why they're there.

"We're in the playoffs, but we don't want to just be in the playoffs. We want to take advantage of it," Word said. "I think we can run and throw the ball. Whatever Coach calls, we've just got to execute it right."

Contact Kelley Smiddie at ksmiddie@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter @KelleySmiddie.

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