By Jon Gremmels Herald Sports Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — CLINTON -- When the high school football season began, the Clinton playbook included a formation where its two starting tackles, DJ Bessellieu and Trent Hessing, lined up side by side.
That plan didn’t even make it through the first game, when Bessellieu went out with a knee injury. They finally lined up side by side last Friday, but not in a good way. Hessing joined his fellow senior lineman on the sidelines when he injured his knee during Clinton’s 37-23 victory against Davenport West.
With road games remaining against a pair of teams ranked in the state’s top 10 in Class 4A, the River Kings (4-3) really could use the 6-foot-1, 244-pound Bessellieu and 6-2, 254-pound Hessing.
“Those are two linemen who came on and had real solid junior seasons,” coach Lee Camp said. “We’re replacing them with quality kids, but we’re also giving up about 50 pounds a man. Not only are we lighter, but we have to use more guys two ways.”
Justin Guilliams, a 194-pound sophomore, will move into a starting spot at guard, while 201-pound senior Nate Harden will move from guard to tackle to replace Hessing.
The one good thing for Clinton, though, is that the final two regular-season games likely don’t mean as much after recording wins against Burlington and West the past two weeks. With four wins, the River Kings have all but sewn up one of the 16 spots that go to teams from the eastern part of the state in the 4A playoffs.
“We don’t feel our backs are against the wall, that it’s do or die,” Camp said Wednesday night. “In some ways it lets you focus on this is the next important game we play.”
Camp likes the way his team is playing right now, too.
“Probably the most positive thing I’ve seen the past two weeks is the confident and competitive attitude,” he said. “We’ve made some adjustments at halftime and come out with a ‘get it done’ attitude.”
No matter the record or the probable playoff position, it won’t be easy.
The Kings travel to Pleasant Valley on Friday night to face the second-ranked team in the state. The Spartans (7-0) can clinch at least a tie for the Mississippi Athletic Conference title with a win.
“They’re a pretty solid team on both sides of the ball and on special teams,” Camp said. “We have to do everything right -- play flawless ball on offense and defense -- to compete with them.”
The Spartans are a senior-dominated team led by senior quarterback Brady Letney. He directs an option attack that has averaged more than 350 yards and nearly 40 points a game. Most of the yards come on the ground, led by senior T.J. Zerbonia’s 617 and Letney’s 523.
“They get some big plays out of their triple option,” Camp said. “Their quarterback is really pretty good.”
When teams get too concerned about stopping the run, Letney can complete a heartbreaking pass. He has thrown just 61 times, but his 35 completions have gone for 582 yards, and he hasn’t thrown an interception.
The defense also is senior-dominated, although the top two tacklers, David Carr (67 stops) and Brendon Bormann (56), are underclassmen.
“Their linebackers are exceptionally quick to the ball and aggressive,” Camp said. “They have a defensive line that keeps the linebackers free. They put a lot of pressure on people.”
Despite that -- and the depleted offensive line -- Camp isn’t planning on changing the Clinton offensive attack that has transformed a bit in recent weeks.
“We still are going to run a lot of similar plays,” he said. “We have started to run in the past week or two a jet read, whether it’s Dustin (Caldwell) or Eric (Maddasion) at quarterback (or lined up outside). We’re lighter but quicker (on the line), so you might see us trap more,”
Caldwell, who will take direct snaps at times from his running back spot, had his second straight 150-yard-plus running game last week and leads Clinton with 637 yards on 104 carries for the season. Maddasion has run for 195 yards this fall.
And while Clinton still will run the ball most of the time, it still has a big weapon outside in 6-foot-8 junior receiver Brady Ernst. He caught two more touchdown passes last week and now has 21 catches for 365 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Perhaps the biggest thing the Kings will for from their offense in the final regular-season games is consistency. All too often -- such as last week when they trailed 7-6 at halftime -- they haven’t been able to put four solid quarters together.
“Maybe it’s a concern, but maybe it’s a compliment,” Camp said of that aspect. “We want to come out ready to play. Maybe it’s a credit to the team we’re going against, but also it’s a compliment to our kids for turning it up.”