Sacred Heart’s strength on defense returns

By CAMAL PETRO,

The Sacred Heart Crusaders lost a ton of production from their 2017 team. Coach Lonny Schraeder and his assistants must fill a handful of spots on both sides of the ball, but one thing is certain, the front seven on defense will be strong once again.

Seniors Garrett Crowder and Tanner Blakeney are back to lead the unit after a dominant season a year ago. Although the Crusaders lost Mike McElroy and Grady Leek from the defensive line, Crowder and Blakeney will help provide enough production to not skip a beat.

“That’s going to be tough,” Schraeder said about replacing Leek and McElroy. “Garrett and Gavin Bradford, we brought them up in the eighth grade. Garrett is a seasoned player who knows what’s going on. He can line people up and he was probably our best defensive player last year.

“We’re not exactly sure where we’ll play Tanner. He’s got a year of experience and I’m glad we’re having him back.”

Crowder led the defense with 121 tackles – six for a loss – as a junior linebacker and Blakeney added 61 with 9.5 tackles for a loss and a team-high four sacks. While Schraeder said Blakeney’s exact position is up in the air, he did say he’ll play a hybrid linebacker and defensive end role.

“Our energy, we’re not scared,” Blakeney said. “We don’t have a lot of older people, but they’ll get out there and work. They’ll just get after it and they’re gritty.”

Crowder added a fumble recovery for a touchdown last season, too. Against Mount Olive, he picked up a fumble and rolled into the end zone for the score.

“Any time I see the ball on the ground, that’s all I can think about,” Crowder said. “It’s just whatever I can do to get to it.”

The Sacred Heart defense had its good and bad moments last season. It hung tough with Sumrall and Lumberton in the first half, but it also allowed teams like Resurrection and East Marion to put up a lot of points. The Crusaders flexed their muscle against St. Patrick, Loyd Star and a few others, though.

The defensive line ate up blocks and that allowed players like Crowder to come in freely to record a tackle.

“Everything got turned back to me, so it was really everybody else making me look good,” Crowder said. “I was just there to finish the job.”

For a 1A school that lost 11 seniors, leadership roles will have to be filled. Along with others, Crowder and Blakeney are two who will have to step up in that area.

“Last year, all of the seniors wanted to make sure they were in charge. That’s what seniors do,” Blakeney said. “This year, we have a lot more people standing out because we have to step up.”

The two will be prominent fixtures on the offensive side as well. Sacred Heart lost its top six yard-getters and Crowder and Blakeney will try to help find some production. Crowder will be used as more of a blocker, whether that’s on the line of scrimmage or an H-back in the backfield, and Blakeney will take over running back duties.

Blakeney said he learned a lot of former Sacred Heart running back Campbell Klein, too.

“I looked up to Campbell all of last year because I knew I’d have to replace him,” Blakeney said. “I just watched everything he did. He taught me a lot and he was a great player.”

Since he’ll be in the backfield on offense, Blakeney won’t miss too many snaps throughout a game. He said he can handle the workload, though, because he’s putting in the work this offseason. 

Crowder and Blakeney aren’t the only two returning to the defensive side. Sure, Sacred Heart lost three of the top four tacklers, but Dylan and Cole Pipkins are back, as well as a handful of other younger players who saw the field a season ago.

It’s easy to see why the front seven will be Sacred Heart’s strength entering the 2018 campaign.

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