Travis Hill might like to be a fly on the wall in the Choctaw camp this week.
How are the Yellowjackets coming off a rematch of last year’s 6AII championship where they were throttled by Bixby 70-7 in a game pitting No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the rankings this season?
“Good question,” the Muskogee High head coach said. “I think there’s two extremes to that. One we’d like to see, which is a deflated loss of energy and a sense of expectation lost from the high expectations set for them that they could compete with this team for a title and things didn’t go well for them Friday.
“But good coaches have a perspective that your first goal is the playoffs, second to win district and then once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. So that’s still in front of all of us. And last week might be a wake-up call and good coaches know how to tweak and use that. Kids are kids though and we won’t know about the impact in their camp until Thursday.”
Muskogee has taken those kind of shots this year — two losses in non-district were 63-21 to Greenwood, Ark., and 56-12 to Rogers, Ark.
But a young team has matured since then, and its leadership as well, starting with freshman quarterback Jamarian Ficklin, who is coming off his second 300-plus yard passing game in a 49-14 win over Bartlesville. He’s 83-of-141 for 1,428 yards and 11 touchdowns.
And even while he’s matured, he’s a poker-face type running the show.
“He keeps everything in perspective and now that he’s established himself and his ability, he’s still all about business the way he reacts the same way through the highs and the lows,” Hill said.
Jayden Bell, who was on the end of a go-route, making a catch just before getting to midfield on what was a 99-yard touchdown pass play, sees the growth in his quarterback.
“I see him settling more into the roll, he’s comfortable in the pocket and doesn’t get flustered on this stage,” Bell said. “He was rushed on that pass and took a hit to deliver me the ball and for me, it’s my job to make the play knowing he’s taking a hit for me.”
Bell had five catches for 177 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but Ficklin’s work isn’t just a one-target show. He utilized nine different receivers last week. Two had more than 60 yards in receptions, Kayden McGee two for 64 yards and Kennedy McGee a 69-yard TD.
Nine carried the football out of the backfield, too.
“Playing with older players, they’ve all helped me through those first three games,” Ficklin said. “My leadership has developed with those relationships.”
Bell is just a junior. But with a team and area-best 716 yards on 29 catches, he’s also becoming a likely target for double teams, bracket coverages and other shut-down schemes.
“I would definitely mark me,” Bell said. “But when I say that, I’ve got mixed emotions. If they don’t mark me, I have to take that with a chip on my shoulder. If you do mark me, I’ve got to find a way to get open.”
That may sound cocky to some, but Hill defines it this way.
“He and I have had some pretty good conversations about how a skill kid needs to be selfish, but a good one doesn’t let that come before the team,” Hill said. “I think some struggle with that type of stuff, but he has a pretty firm head.”
Bell continues to be impressed by not only Ficklin’s improved numbers, but how the quarterback that goes by “Byrd” carries himself.
Byrd’s mindset is amazing for a freshman,” Bell said. “Even when we were way up on Bartlesville, he was there telling everyone ‘there’s still time on the clock, we still got to execute.’ In the low games, he’s there saying ‘hey, the clock is still ticking, we can still change the moment and get things going our way.’”
Hill said this kind of leadership is important in a game like that coming Thursday, against a team the Roughers have lost two in both meetings, a 2019 playoff encounter and 26-10 in what became the last regular season game for COVID-impacted Muskogee.
“Our kids are smart enough to know this will be a different fight (than last week),” Hill said. “I think those two have already geared their minds in that direction. It’s a challenge but it’s one that we can make go our way if we handle certain things.”
One thing to handle — a front three with a size advantage who also play very aggressively. At the core is DeSean Brown (6-foot-4, 245).
The same can be said offensively.
Junior Steele Wasel is 6-5, 220 and his physicality will give the Roughers some issues. He threw for 240 yards and a couple touchdowns last year, where running back Latrelle Ray had 160 yards on 18 carries. Ray is also back.
“He hits the creases well with a lot of speed,” Hill said.
But a key will be winning enough battles up front to allow an offense that has found itself to maybe not do what it has the past three weeks, but do enough.
“If we can hold up up front we can have some success with these guys,” Hill said. “Negative plays are going to happen and things could change quickly. We need to make it an even game and not let negative plays get to us.”
Hill has got some guys in place to help not let it happen.
“I believe in my line,” Ficklin said. “I came out pretty clean last week. I wasn’t sacked once. It’ll be a dogfight but I know we’re better than last year.”
“We hung with them last year but this team in here is a whole lot better than last year,” he said. “It’ll help if the offense jumps out early and the defense gets some stops.”
If not, they’ll try to steady the ship, knowing there’s still time on the clock.