OXFORD — There’s good news and better news about Oxford’s 6-0 start and rise to a No. 2 ranking in Class 6A.
The good news? It’s defense has proven to be better than last year’s unit, despite losing a great player in linebacker K.J. Britt, now a college freshman at Auburn.
The better news? The Yellow Jackets have done this well despite their offense barely getting off the ground, as coaches protect quarterback Abe Peoples amid nagging injuries.
That’s the state of things as Oxford makes the turn down the home stretch of their regular-season schedule, looking to peak in time for the playoffs.
“Our defense is playing great,” Oxford coach Ryan Herring said. “We’ve been playing just smart, playing fast, playing physical. …
“Offensively, we’ve been pretty solid. We’ve been more of a blue-collar, run-it-right-at-you type offense through the season so far. One reason is Abe has been hurt every week.”
Herring struggled to run through Peoples’ injuries while counting on his fingers.
The player-of-the-year pick for The Star’s preseason 4A-6A All-Calhoun County team, Peoples battled a knee bruise in preseason camp. He got over that but came out of the opener against Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa with what Herring called “bad-bruised ribs.”
Along the way since then, Peoples has battled elbow, finger and shoulder issues … all on his right (throwing) side.
“It was the knee from this summer, then the ribs in the Hillcrest game,” Peoples said. “Brewer, I almost tore a ligament in my finger, and then Cullman, I got hit in a nerve on my elbow, and I still have no feeling from my elbow down to my fingers on my throwing hand.”
He also sustained a concussion in Oxford’s win at Benjamin Russell last week and says he will not play Friday against Southside.
“It’s been very difficult, just expecting a lot more from this season and then what I’ve had to deal with,” Peoples said. “But my team has been encouraging me and pushing me through it. They’ve done a great job through all of it.”
Peoples joked that “I’m pretty much running out of things to injure.” That, at least, gives him hope that things get better before season’s end.
For now, Herring keeps Peoples rested in practice each week.
“We’ve done everything we can, so he can go out there and play on Friday night,” Herring said. “It’s been real weird, managing practice. … We’ve had to really think through things and come up with strategies each week in practice.”
Promising freshman Trey Higgins has played in every game, either when Peoples has to come out for injury or when lopsided scores allowed the coaches to rest him. Higgins has also gotten a lot of practice reps, working good-on-good against Oxford’s defense.
That, no doubt, helps Higgins’ long-term development. For the time being, Oxford’s coaches hope Peoples’ injuries can subside. Besides concern for him, there’s concern for the development of the Yellow Jackets’ offense.
“When you put together an offense, and you have schemes you want to run, you build on the schemes each week a little bit,” Herring said. “Your major runs, you’ll have a play action off of and a counter off of. We haven’t even gotten to the steps B and C on stuff because we’ve just wanted him to be able to play in the game.
“It’s been real frustrating for him and his family, but, if there’s anybody who may can handle this, it’ll be him.”
Oxford has had a reliable running game, led by All-State tailback Tyetus Smith-Lindsey. The Yellow Jackets have also counted on their defense.
“We’re better than last year’s defense,” Herring said. “We’re a lot better up front, and I think we’re a lot smarter on the back end.”
Last week, Oxford held previously unbeaten Benjamin Russell to 31 rushing yards on 31 runs. Oxford’s lone coverage mishap allowed Benjamin Russell’s lone touchdown.
“I don’t think they hardly ever crossed the 50 (midfield) the whole night,” Herring said. “I thought that was a real testament to where we are right now.
“We still have to get better, but they’re playing great defense. There’s no questioning that.”
The home stretch of Oxford’s schedule includes opponents with a combined 8-13 record. Linebacker Kendall McCallum said the Yellow Jackets won’t have trouble staying sharp ahead of the playoffs.
“Like my coaches always say, we just work on getting each other better,” he said. “We’ve got a good offense, and it’s best-on-best every day, so we work on getting each other better. We don’t really worry about the other team.
“We’re just trying to get to Game 15.”