“There are two things,” said Curtis coach J.T. Curtis regarding the context behind the Patriots meeting Karr in Week 1. “One: We both like to compete. Two: We couldn’t find anybody else to play. Everybody’s not calling Karr and calling me to say ‘Hey, you want to play the opening game!?’”
Well, lucky for us, because now we have a matchup between arguably Louisiana’s top two programs Thursday at 7 p.m. at historic Behrman Stadium.
Both John Curtis and Karr have become national powers entering the week as the 20th and 51st-ranked teams in High School Football America’s Preseason 100 nationwide rankings.
The Patriots hold an astounding 26 state championship including last year’s Division I title, and coach Curtis enters the season as the most winningest coach in the country with 582 career wins since taking over in 1969. Karr has been to the state championship game in eight of the last nine seasons, and their last three trips have resulted in Class 4A title wins under coach Brice Brown.
“Yeah but those past years don’t mean nothing come Thursday night,” retorted Brown, who is set to begin his fifth season as the Cougars’ head coach. “History and tradition will only take you so far. It’s going to be all about what we can produce this year for the 2020 class.”
Everyone will be 0-0 when the Patriots and Cougars kick off for the state’s most highly-anticipated opener, and the matchup will, of course, be determined by the players taking the field.
There’s no shortage of talent on either side and the contest will be a clash between two contrasting styles.
The Patriots’ classic veer-option attack presents a physical brand of football that is made even more difficult to defend as an outlier in the high school game — and at any other level for that matter. The Patriots have a deep stable of backs led by Georgia commitment Corey Wren, and teams can also expect to see a heavy dose of senior Shane Goins along with Tony Alexander, Charles Quinn and Malique Ward.
Army commitment and four-year starting quarterback Collin Guggenheim is also a lynchpin in the Patriots’ running game, and was just three yards behind Wren as the team’s leading rusher during the regular season racking up 750 yards and 10 touchdown on 90 carries.
The key to the Curtis’ success routinely lies up front, though, and the Patriots have four of their five lineman returning. The group has considerable size across the board led by 6-foot-4, 290-pounder Robbie Pizzolato, and Karr knows it will have to be prepared for the downhill onslaught coming its direction.
“It’s something that we’re really unfamiliar with,” Brown explained of the Patriots’ offense. “We don’t see that a lot in our league, we see more spread (offenses), so it’s going to be a test for us defensively and a test for us offensively too. We don’t see as much zone coverage so we’ve got some adjustments to make.”
“We just have to come off the ball and do our jobs,” added defensive lineman Josh Randall in reference to stopping the Patriots’ unique offense. “It’s just another game and we have to go out and do our jobs. This week I think we’re focused on being more disciplined.”
Randall will be one of the key cogs in the Cougars’ attempt to slow down the Patriots’ rushing attack come Thursday night. The senior is the leader of a defensive line that also includes one of the state’s top sophomore prospects in 6-foot-3, 290-pound Tygee Hill.
Senior captain Joe Thomas will anchor an aggressive linebacking core and Arkansas commitment Jamie Vance stars in the secondary. Vance’s group likely won’t get much action against a team that rarely takes to the air more than 4-5 times per game, which is the exact opposite of what Curtis’ secondary will see.
“If you know anything about Karr, they like to air it out all the time,” said Curtis, whose team last met the Cougars in 2013 walking away with a 38-33 victory. “They’ve got quarterbacks that can play, they’ve got receivers that can run and catch, and they’ve done a good job protecting.
“Look, you’re not a 3-time state champion for no reason,” Curtis added. “Those guys know what they’re doing with the ball, they know how to execute what they do and it’s not a surprise to me that they’re going to be an awfully good football team again this year.”
Even with two Division I running backs in the fold last season, Karr was a passing team led by returning quarterback Leonard Kelly. The senior is one of the most poised and accurate signal callers in the state, and per usual with the Cougars, he has a fleet of talented athletes surrounding him.
Junior receiver Destyn Pazon is poised for a breakout season by all accounts, and the 6-foot, 170-pounder dons the coveted No. 2 jersey for the Cougars. Alongside him will be the dynamic Aaron Anderson, who is just a sophomore but has already showed flashes of his versatile playmaking ability as a receiver, running back and returner.
Like Curtis, Karr also has an experienced offensive line with all five starters returning, which should in theory give Kelly time in the pocket to find his targets.
“I’ve just got to go into the game, use my reads correctly and make plays whenever the ball is in the air,” said cornerback Dante Thomas, Curtis’ top returning defensive back. “It’s exciting to get to play (Karr). They’re a 3-time state championship team and you don’t get a chance to play teams like that everyday.”
Helping Thomas with his goal of slowing down Karr’s air raid attack will be a pass rush applied by one of the metro area’s top defensive ends in Tulane commitment Angelo Anderson. The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder’s presence has caused problems for a plethora of offenses, and 6-foot-2, 295-pound tackle Elinus Noel III as well as opposite end Marquis Martin (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) can be equally as destructive to a gameplan.
Senior leader Matthew Jayne Jr. is Curtis’ top returning linebacker and he’ll be partly responsible for getting a defensive unit on track that could be a bit out of rhythm coming into Thursday.
Essentially every team prefers to get into a flow going into the season with a jamboree game, but the Patriots haven’t taken the field against another opponent since an August 22 scrimmage against St. Paul’s.
Curtis had been expecting for quite some time that it would be a participant in the St. Augustine jamboree this past Saturday at Tad Gormley Stadium, but were informed earlier in the week their spot was no longer available.
“We just tried to go through a mock ball game,” Curtis explained regarding the team’s preparation strategy in lieu of a jamboree game. “We tried to make sure our special teams were in order, and we had things we needed to do to dress up a little bit and I thought it went okay. It wasn’t like a jamboree but we were able to get some things done and I think we’ll be fine for the ball game.”
“It actually won’t (hurt us) because we had more time to recover so we’re ready to play this Thursday,” added Pizzolato. “It’s going to be crazy (at Behrman Stadium). It’s going to be loud, everybody’s going to be jumping around and I can’t wait for that!”
While the Patriots made due without seeing a foreign opponent, Karr got off to a surprisingly slow start in its preseason battles.
The Cougars were ousted three touchdowns to one by East St. John during a scrimmage on August 23, and slipped by Kennedy, 7-6, this past Friday in the Eastbank vs. Westbank Jamboree.
The Cougar offense was held without a score as a kickoff return for a touchdown by Aaron Anderson gave them their only points, but the starters will receive extended playing time this time around unlike on Friday.
Needless to say, an always-confident Karr team doesn’t seem overly concerned about their less-than-stellar debuts.
“When we come to practice all we do is work on fixing the mistakes that we had,” Pazon said. “The team that’s going to come out with the win is the team that makes the fewest mistakes and I think we’re going to be locked in the whole week.”