County has 4 finalists for Mr. Football
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor
Briarwood and Thompson had two of the more historical seasons on the gridiron and it’s only fitting that each have two players named finalists for the 2017 Player of the Year award.
Each team had an unbelievable season in 2017 as Briarwood made a run to the 5A State Championship game in Tuscaloosa before losing 17-14 to St. Paul’s to finish the year 14-1; while Thompson fell to Hoover in the 7A Semifinals picking up several accolades along the way.
A big reason for Briarwood’s success was standout play from two individuals, one on each side of the ball.
Defense was the trend for the Lions this season as they gave up less than 10 points per game for most of the season before ending the 2017 campaign with giving up an average of 10.6 points per game.
While several guys such as Carson Donnelly, Mark Hand, Cade Dickinson and Andrew Sherrod had monstrous seasons on the defensive side, few had the numbers that senior linebacker Gabe Russell posted.
Russell, who looked like an SEC caliber linebacker by the way he chased down potent offensive playmakers for much of the season, ended 2017 as one of the leading tacklers in the state.
He posted 112 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, one pass break up and one blocked kick this season and displayed some of the best closing speed of any linebacker in the state.
Those were numbers that helped anchor a defense that posted three shutouts (two of which came in the postseason), allowed more than 14 points three times, gave up 17 or less in all but one game and allowed seven or less in seven games.
While Russell’s season on defense was worthy enough for All-State first team honors and a trip to Montgomery for the Player of the Year ceremony, so was that of offensive teammate J.R. Tran-Reno.
Mr. Do It All for the Lions, Tran-Reno was seen all over the field in 2017, which led to 1,696 All-Purpose yards.
He had 1,030 yards rushing, 543 yards receiving yards, 123 yards passing and 28 total touchdowns. As if that wasn’t enough, Tran-Reno also handled all of the punting duties for the state runner-ups and picked up two interceptions defensively.
He is the true definition of an athlete. When teams were bottling him up in the run game, he didn’t get frustrated and moved into more of a receiving role, where offensive coordinator Bobby Kerley felt extremely comfortable utilizing him.
Tran-Reno’s 28 touchdowns paced an offense that scored 32.1 points per game, including 30-plus in four of Briarwood’s five playoff games.
Sticking to the offensive prowess, Thompson had two very deserving players also named finalists in quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and wide receiver Ahmad Edwards.
The defense played unbelievable this year with three linebackers posting at least 126 total tackles led by Jalen Rayam with 143, a state-high at the linebacker position; those two offensive players were the difference in this year’s team compared to last year’s.
Tagovailoa and Edwards, both new to the team in 2017, set all kinds of records on the offensive side of the ball and led the team to its most points in school history with 492, as well as a region championship, a 12-1 record and the school’s first ever win over Hoover.
Last year the team averaged just 18.3 points per game, but with the addition of those two dynamic playmakers, that average jumped up almost 20 points to 38.2 points per game.
At the quarterback position, Tagovailoa completed 264 of his 423 passing attempts for 3,823 yards, which was good enough to pass John Parker Wilson for third all-time in AHSAA history. He added 35 passing touchdowns and several rushing touchdowns to that unbelievable yardage number.
His favorite target was obviously Edwards, who he hit 118 times this season to help the senior receiver set a state record for receptions. All of those receptions led to Edwards ending the year with 1,464 receiving yards, which is fifth in AHSAA history and an average of 112.6 yards per game, as well as 13 touchdowns.
All four of those players give the county not solely a good shot at having a player of the year from the 5A and 7A classifications, but a Mr. Football winner as the overall best player in the state.
They’ll each attend the 2017 Mr. Football ceremony held on Jan. 13 at 11:30 a.m. in downtown Montgomery at the Renaissance Hotel. Each classification has a total of six finalists for Player of the Year, giving both teams a strong shot at having representation.