Running the football against the Harlan County defense was once an all but impossible task.
Harlan County’s “Filthy Animals” defense was among the most physical in Kentucky and routinely ranked among the state leaders against the run.
It is probably no coincidence that when the HCHS defense stopped being filthy the Bears stopped winning. HCHS struggled to stop the run last year and fell to 2-9 after winning the previous four District 8 titles in 5A.
The Bears’ problems on run defense have continued this year as HCHS takes a 1-5 record into Friday’s district showdown at Needham Saylor Field against Letcher Central in the Friends of Coal Bowl. Harlan County gave up 373 rushing yards last week in a 42-21 loss at North Laurel as senior running back Steven Nelson ran for 203 yards and sophomore quarterback Cole McWhorter added 170.
Harlan County will face an even tougher test this week against one of the state’s top running backs. Senior tailback Jaylin Williams has rushed for 1,532 yards and scored 21 touchdowns.
“No doubt, he’s one of the best runners around,” Letcher Central coach Mike Holcomb said. “Our offensive line has done a great job for him and got him to where he can get in the open field. He runs hard and makes good things happen.”
“I don’t think it’s a big secret that their success centers around (Williams),” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “He’s an excellent running back. Not many people have stopped him so far, but we know we have to at least contain him in order to have a chance to win. He’s going to win most of the one-on-one battles in the hole. He’s really good at cutbacks. We have to gang tackle and we have to be sure tacklers.”
The one problem for Letcher caused by Williams’ success is that every defense keys on him. Quade Adams is second on the team in rushing with 128 yards. Isaiah Tyree is next with 60.
“We’ve seen more and more defenses trying to shut him down,” Holcomb said. “The key for us is to have other people make plays.”
Holcomb, who led Breathitt County to three state championships, says the Bears’ record is deceiving due to their schedule. HCHS has lost non-district games to Southwestern, Knox Central, Belfry and Johnson Central.
“Harlan County is the best 1-5 team I’ve seen,” he said. “They’ve played a killer schedule. It looks like their kids are playing hard. They are a lot better than their record shows.”
Letcher Central (4-2) has won three straight since losing back-to-back games to Pikeville(49-12) and Hazard (23-20). The Cougars bounced back by edging (Wise) Central, Va. 44-43, then they defeated Breathitt County 63-35 and Perry Central 33-6.
“We lost two quarterbacks in the Pikeville game in the first five minutes,” Holcomb said. “We had to adjust a little bit. I think we’ve grown up some since then. We’re playing a little better, and you should be in Week 7.”
Harlan County has showed some signs of improvement. Senior quarterback Jarett Ford completed 14 of 18 passes for 155 yards in last week’s loss at North Laurel. Sophomore defensive back/receiver Quintin Mickens may be the Bears’ best player overall so far, leading in tackles with 51 while also contributing as a receiver, running back and on special teams.
Harlan County owns a 5-3 lead in the series against the only team the Bears have played every year since the school opened in 2008. As usual, the game could go a long way in determining playoff seeding for both teams.
“It’s our home district opener, and we know we could win out in our district and have a home playoff game,” Creech said.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134