By TONY EIERDAM
Turn on the Friday night lights.
After a month of early-morning practices and two scrimmages, the Mineral Wells Rams are ready to open the 2013 high school football season when they host Graham today.
The Rams and the state-ranked No. 9 Steers will kickoff at 7:30 p.m. at Ram Stadium.
Graham defeated the Rams last year in the opener. Graham is also coming off a Class 3A seven-on-seven state championship won over the summer.
Rams head coach Chuck Lawrence, who is happy the team opens the season at home, is of course concerned about winning the contest, but early on in the season the focus will be to play hard for the entire game.
“No doubt about it, you always like to play at home in your season opener,” he said. “The first game of the year, and the fact that it is the first home game for the seniors, makes it all that more exciting.
“We are playing a very good team, and we want our kids to compete.
“We want them to step up to the challenge, and whether we win or lose I want to see that we played hard for four quarters.
“That has kind of our mantra since I have been here. We throw our fours up (fingers) when the fourth quarter begins to make sure we are competing hard in the fourth quarter.”
To beat a team as talented and experienced as the Steers, Mineral Wells will almost have to play error-free football.
The Rams will also employ a bend-but-don’t-break mentality on defense.
However, the Rams’ situation at running back is unclear as starter Josh Hardee and his backup, Devon Edmonds, each were forced to leave the Azle scrimmage due to injuries. Each will be a game-time decision.
“We have to control the football, commit no turnovers and score when we get opportunities down deep in their end of the field,” Lawrence said. “Defensively, we have to not allow the big play like we did against them last year.
“We want them to drive the ball on us to score. Their quarterback has a strong, accurate arm, and they have a good, fast running back and a couple of sure-handed receivers.
“But if they are going to score, we have to make them methodically drive the ball down the field.
“Last year, they were getting 30-, 40-, 50-yard plays, and this year we have to eliminate those.”
The straw that stirs the drink of the Steers’ offense is all-state quarterback Ben Davis, who threw for 3,332 yards and a whopping 23 touchdowns in 2012.
The Graham signal caller also proved to be fleet-footed last year as he rushed for 416 yards and found the end zone 12 times.
Davis is complimented offensively by running back Dillon Gonzales (1,418 yards, 23 TDs) and receiver Bryce Reeves (72 catches, 1,071 yards, nine TDs).
“Davis is a competitor, and he throws a good ball,” Lawrence said. “The big thing is he has a good offensive line in front of him, gets good protection, and he throws it on time.
“It makes it tough to get a good pass rush against guys who throw it on time. We will have to do different things to put pressure on Davis, an hopefully we will have people in his throwing lanes where he has to hesitate just a little bit to give our defensive line time to get to him.”
One way to keep the ball out of the hands of the explosive Steers is to establish long, sustained drives on offense that chews up the clock. Lawrence said the Steers play the same style defensively as the Rams, and Lawrence feels that could play into the hands of the MWHS offense.
“Graham runs a 3-3 stack on defense and is very conservative,” Lawrence said. “Last year, they played an umbrella behind their 3-3 and forced us to drive the ball.
“But to be successful against them we are going to have to do just that.
“We will take what they give us, and we will have to make short runs and short passes to get first downs.
“If we can do that, it will also keep their offense off the field.”
Lawrence said another area the Rams have to win is special teams, not only in kicking and the return game, but on coverage teams as well.
Two years ago the Rams and the Steers were locked in a 0-0 tie at the half. But Graham ran back the second-half kickoff for a touchdown which ended up being the difference in a 20-12 loss to the Steers.
“We have to play good, sound special teams against Graham,” Lawrence said. “And I mean all night long. We have to play solid in all phases of the special teams.
“We can’t give up a big kickoff return like we did two years ago.
“When you are playing a really good team, you have to play sound special teams or the game can get away from you.”