Wide-open Knights are hard to defend

Quarterback Tucker Neven (9) hands off to Brock Taunton on jet sweep in 2017 playoff game.

CECIL – Glynn Lott doesn’t have all the football statistics dating back to the first year of Macon-East Montgomery Academy in 1996, but he doesn’t need them.

As the only football coach in the history of the school now known simply as Macon East, he can rattle off all the running variations his teams have employed over the years, but it’s a short list when it comes to passing.

“We haven’t thrown the ball as much as we’ve thrown it the last two years,” Lott said. “Neal Posey’s year (2008), we threw it a little bit but not as much as we throw it now. We tried to throw it then but we couldn’t catch it, we couldn’t run the routes.”

That’s not a problem this year. Three of the receivers – Jackson Ceman, Ethan Honaker and Brock Taunton – were on the team last year and a fourth, sophomore Clay Slagle, played two years ago, giving the Knights (3-0) an experienced group of receivers for quarterback Tucker Neven.

“That’s our strength, our receivers,” Lott said. “The best thing about us this year is there is no one spot you can concentrate on. We have four good receivers, the running backs are good, the quarterback is good. You can’t just say we’re going to double-team this guy tonight. Tucker does a real good job of distributing the ball to the open person. We don’t just lock on somebody.”

Neven, a backup at Park Crossing two years ago, threw for more than 1,600 yards last season and has put up numbers this season that are hard to put in perspective. Through three games, he has completed 19 of 25 passes for 527 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions. Those numbers translate to an NCAA pass efficiency rating of 345.47 and an NFL rating of 157.08.

The top two players currently atop the NCAA pass efficiency ratings are Toledo’s Mitch Guadagni (269.8) and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (237.2). Among the well-known NFL passers, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has a rating of 130.7, followed closely by Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints (129.5). Clearly, Neven is on pace for a record-setting year.

“He’s very smart,” Lott said. “He’s one of the strongest, if not the strongest, kids on the team. We put a lot of pressure on him during the week. We run certain plays with certain techniques. If you’re able to call that play and signal him to which one we’re going to run on a certain technique, that’s huge. You can do it as a coach standing out there from Monday through Thursday but on Friday night he has to do that himself, get us in the right play, and he does a good job of that.”

Neven completed 110 of 184 passes for 1,643 yards and 22 touchdowns last year and Lott believes his 2,170 career passing yards is likely a school record.

It’s a sign of the times that Macon East, which competed (and won) a state championship a couple of decades ago with run-oriented offenses that included wing-T formations, some I-formation as well as veer offenses, would scrap it all for a spread passing attack.

“We changed to what we’re doing a couple of years ago before they (Neven and his receivers) even came,” Lott explained. “To get them (Macon East students) to play. They don’t want to go out there (for long, grueling run-oriented practices). The other night, we were walking off the field at 5 o’clock on a Tuesday. Used to, we’d practice until 6, 6:30. You do that now and we might not have half the players we’ve got. We were down to 16, 20 players and now we’re back up to 30.”

The veteran coach admits the quicker pace not only attracts the players but fans and coaches as well.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “The up-tempo I like. I guess that’s from basketball. We just want them to be able to play fast. We tell them all the time, where are you going to step and go? Block somebody. If it’s the wrong person, block one of them. They’ve bought into it. Last year we could only throw the ball. This year, we’ve been able to run the ball a lot more than we could last year.”

Newcomers Cephus Cleveland and Kenny Owens give the running game a big-play threat it didn’t have a year ago. Cleveland, a backup quarterback at Catholic a year ago, has 150 yards and five touchdowns on just 11 carries. Owens, who came from Texas a year ago, has 98 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries.

“They’ve done a real good job,” Lott said. “(Cleveland) sees the field very well. Kenny does, too. And our run game is deceiving because J.C. (Ceman) and Brock get so many yards on the jet sweep that we run. We probably have more yards on that one play than any other. Now, people will start taking that away, but that’ll open up some stuff for Tucker and the rest of them.”

At that point, the “new” Macon East offense might start looking a little like the “old” Knight attack. Just don’t tell the players.

“We actually still run the veer out of the shotgun,” Lott said. “Do we call it that? No. They don’t even realize they’re running the veer.”