Clovis defensive coordinator Darren Kelley goes over formations with senior linebacker Jeff Epps during Thursday’s practice at the school. Epps is the Wildcats’ leading tackler this season. CNJ photo: Rick White
By Rick White
The Clovis Wildcats know two things this week.
A win over Manzano earns them a third-straight state playoff appearance, and in order to beat the Monarchs, they have to contain Rodney Ferguson.
The Wildcats (6-2, 2-0 in district) play the Monarchs (7-2, 2-1) in a District 4-5A matchup with playoff implications for both teams at 7 p.m. Saturday at Wilson Stadium in Albuquerque.
Manzano is eliminated from playoff contention with a loss.
Ferguson, a bullish 6-foot-1, 198-pound senior, is in his third season as the focal point of Manzano’s offense. He rushed for 268 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s win over Hobbs, which pushed him over 1,300 yards for the season.
Clovis defensive coordinator coach Darren Kelley jokingly wondered if Ferguson was ever going to leave.
“Eventually, he’ll have to graduate,” Kelley said. “Hopefully, they won’t red-shirt him.”
Clovis senior linebacker Jeff Epps knows a Wildcat defense that has shut out its first two district opponents will be tested by Ferguson.
“We’re going to have to make sure we hit him and wrap up,” said Epps, the Wildcats’ leading tackler. “He’ll run right through arm tackles.”
Ferguson hasn’t had much success the last two years against Clovis, including last year when he finished with a season-low 54 yards in a 42-20 Manzano loss.
Manzano coach Aaron Ocampo said he’ll have to rely on more than Ferguson to win this week.
“Some teams we know we’re going to have success running the ball,” the third-year Manzano coach said. “But Clovis’ defensive line is too strong, too physical and too well-coached to do that.
“We’re going to have to mix it up.”
The Monarchs are buoyed by the return of two-year senior starter Breck Vernon at quarterback. Vernon, who has passed for more than 900 yards, returned last week after missing three games with a knee injury.
“They can do a lot more things with him,” Kelley said. “But mostly, it’s a leadership thing.”
Vernon riddled the Wildcats’ secondary for 213 yards and three touchdowns last year, including a 54-yard score on the first play from scrimmage.
The Monarchs use multiple sets to try and confuse defenses, Kelley said. They’ll line up in double-twins, trips and even with an empty backfield.
Ocampo wasn’t about to reveal his hand.
“Who knows, we might line up (Ferguson) at wide receiver or even guard,” he said.
What Ocampo does know is Clovis will be ready.
“The numbers and names are different but it’s the same type of Clovis football team,” Ocampo said. “They’re so fundamentally sound and well-coached. If there’s any difference this year it’s they’re a little more athletic in the backfield.”
Ocampo was referring quarterback John Props and running back Phillip Williams, both juniors.
The Wildcats, who have put together a five-game winning streak behind Props (10 passing TDs, six rushing) and Williams (8.0 yards a carry, seven TDs) and an improved defense, are coming off an open week for the second time in a month.
The last time the Wildcats had an open week they played poorly early in a 31-0 win over Eldorado, which also happened to be on the same field as Saturday’s game.
Epps doesn’t see that happening again.
“I think we’ve fixed that problem,” Epps said. “This week the coaches have really worked our butts off.”