Football Fridays in Fairfield have been fun for the Mules in recent years, having won three straight conference championships and riding a 20-game regular-season winning streak. That success even carried over into the playoffs last year, with an overtime win over Newton in the first round.
Last year’s seniors graduated with the most wins in a three-year span at FCHS, going from eight to nine to 10 in their varsity career.
Entering his 19th year (101-75) as head coach of the Mules, Justin Townsend sounds like a coach who anticipates that success carrying over again this year. This year’s seniors would need to win nine to surpass that mark.
“I’m sure that is a little bit of motivation there, to one-up last year’s team,” Townsend said in a preseason interview this week. “The mindset of this group of kids is a strength. They are winners. They want to be successful in whatever they do.”
What They Lost
They lost quite a few big names in the conference battles over recent years, including the most prolific player of the last 20 years at FCHS in Dylan Heifner. The big bruiser moved around from tight end to running back, and from defensive end to linebacker, but when his career wound down, he was the first Mule to be all-conference all four years, and was the first Mule to be named BDC MVP.
He led the Mules in rushing last year, forming one-third of a balanced backfield with also-departed Reese Lee and the returning Wyatt Gilbert.
The Mules also graduated an all-conference first-team lineman in Jake Kinney and defensive lineman in Josh Hudgens. Lee was also the defensive captain of the BDC at defensive back.
“It was our best season in school history: a playoff win, undefeated regular season. It was everything you would want to accomplish over 19 years, hoping you get to that point, but absolutely, it is hard to follow that up,” Townsend said. “But, I think we have gotten to the point where we expect to be in that position every year.”
“With us, we want to win conference and make the playoffs, but now it is can we make a run in the playoffs? That it is the next big step for us,” Townsend noted.
Cupboard Not Bare
They do have a lot of spots to fill, but they also return six to seven starters on each side of the ball, and no one position group was decimated. Last year, they had five new starting offensive linemen to replace. They return multiple starters at every level this year.
A direct benefit of the recent success is the number of players out continues to be a strength for Fairfield. They have 63 kids out this year, up from 58 last year. And that is spread out with 14 seniors, 14 juniors and 17 sophomores.
“Anytime we can have more than 10-12 seniors, we are probably going to be pretty successful,” Townsend noted.
“When we scrimmage, we can have seven or eight starters going against our first team offense and get a good look. A lot of teams have to do half-line stuff just to get a good look. We are fortunate we can go 11-on-11 and still get a good look,” Townsend said. “It is not uncommon for us to challenge them, put the ball on the 10-yard line and see who can make a play.”
The offense will have a new signal caller this year, as two-year starting quarterback Alec Pruitt graduated last year after an all-conference honorable mention season. The Mules did not throw the ball often (just 73 times in 11 games), but Pruitt was a veteran presence and leader on the team.
Stepping into his shoes will be junior Landon Zurliene, Coach Townsend’s son. Zurliene played wideout last year, but also was 3-for-5 with 72 yards passing as well.
Coaching your own child can have its challenges, but Townsend has some similar experience in this regard, having coached his nephews Luke Townsend and Caleb Smith.
“I got a little prior experience there, but it is definitely a little different coaching your son. It doesn’t always stop when you go home. You are still talking about things. I have to make sure I am not only pointing out the negatives, I have to remember the positives too, just like I would do with any other kid,” Townsend said.
“Obviously, there are a lot of expectations with him. He is a pretty good athlete and everyone has seen what he can do on the basketball court. I think if you watched some of the lower level football games, he is pretty good out there too, maybe better than people realize, honestly,” Townsend assessed. “It is exciting. He has done a great job with the team. He allows us to do some different things. I think we may be in a little more shotgun sets this year.”
Zurliene does give Townsend his tallest quarterback in years as well, approaching 6-4. Zurliene had an elbow injury to his non-throwing arm this summer, costing him reps as he missed five weeks.
“We had intended to do more throwing in July, and just were not able to do it, but right now it doesn’t look like the elbow is bothering him at all,” Townsend noted.
“Dylan Best is our backup, we also have Cade Carter if we needed him in an emergency situation. Dylan has improved a ton from last year. I think he will have a big year for us at the jayvee level. He is also another good athlete who will play some receiver and in the secondary some this year.”
A strong rushing attack can be a young quarterback’s best friend, and the Mules have been one of the best in the state at that the last few years. The three-headed monster of Heifner, Lee and Gilbert made balanced play calling easy last year. But, Heifner and Lee take their combined 2,000-plus yards with them, leaving just Gilbert with significant experience. He ran for 789 yards last year, but then the next closest returner, Kaleb Wells, had just 82.
Townsend hopes to take advantage of Gilbert’s versatility, knowing teams will be focusing on him this year.
“Gilbert is a stud. We have really talked about this year trying to get him more touches offensively, more like we used him in the Newton playoff game—moving him around, you may see him in the slot, you may see him in the backfield, you may see him flexed out at wideout. Team are going to key on him, so we feel if we can move him around, we are better off,” Townsend said.
He will also return kicks, and doubles as a starter in the secondary.
Townsend was quick to note it is not just Gilbert though.
A late summer move saw Carter return to the backfield after playing tight end last year. The versatile senior has played quarterback, fullback, tight end and wideout on offense, despite sitting his sophomore year for precautionary reasons. He will play a lot of wing this year.
“We try to be cautious with some things with him, but he is an athlete, especially when we put him in the backfield and get him some touches. Just because he is back there does not mean he will be running the ball 30 times a game. We can use him split out wide too, at tight end still, at wing,” Townsend said. “Him and Gilbert both are important parts of our secondary too, so we have to be smart about how we use both of them.”
The toughest shoes to fill will be the job of junior Kaleb Wells, who replaces Heifner at fullback.
“Reality is, Wells is a 6-2, 165-pound fullback. He actually runs pretty hard. He can do some things. He has a few varsity carries under his belt. There were a few times last year where we needed a fullback and we threw him out there in the mix and he was ready to go.”
“We are trying to eliminate having 9-10 guys going both ways, so we felt like that was a spot where we could utilize him on offense,” Townsend added.
The backfield depth is largely made up of multi-position players, or defensive starters Townsend hopes to avoid overusing—move-in Cameron Gardner, Blake Pruitt, Colin Massie, Konnor Dagg, Cayden Taylor.
The versatility in backs/tight end types has become more common for the Mules.
“Some of that is the system we are running. They come in here as freshmen and learn the system. They realize as freshmen when there are 12-14 of them, they have to play multiple spots. We try to make sure we have guys in every class that can play multiple spots. We are up front with them—they will be on the field more if they can do multiple things.”
The sophomore backfield will be McGwire Taylor, Camden Robbins and Konnor Dagg.
Up front, the Mules return four of their front seven, counting the two tight ends, who are linemen much more often than not in Fairfield’s offense.
However, the returners have been shuffled around this year. All-conference first-team center Chandler McGill (6-0, 265) slides over to right guard, with Bronson Jones (6-3, 310) snapping the ball this year.
Luke Dagg (6-3, 185) played right tackle last year as a junior, but slides out one spot to tight end this year.
“He was a good puller, but a little undersized. With what we lost at tight end from last year, and moving Cade into the backfield, I felt like we could bump him out, do some different things and use his athleticism catching the football,” Townsend noted. “A lot of times with our tight ends, we are taking an athlete and trying to teach them the blocking part. Luke already knows the blocking part and we are teaching him the route part. I think that is a much easier transition.”
The Mules hope to use some of the skills that made Dagg one of the better rebounders and post defenders on the Mules’ record-setting basketball team last year.
Also facilitating the move for Dagg was the continued development of a behemoth of a junior in AJ Gonzalez. He checks in at 6-8, 320-pounds. Used sparingly last year on both sides of the ball, Gonzalez will be looked to more this year.
“He is definitely more comfortable on the offensive line this year. He has great feet, great size. It is just getting him to flip the switch,” Townsend noted.
The one lineman returning in his same spot is senior Nic Austin (5-11, 190), who lines up at left guard again. Just outside of him will be senior Ike Downen, a 205-pound senior, to start the year. Downen started at guard some last year.
Last year’s left tackle, Bryce Garner, earned all-conference honorable mention, but has had another setback to a knee injury. His return timetable is still up in the air.
While Dagg has one tight end spot locked down, the other looks to be a platoon, with Taylor and K. Dagg getting some looks, as well as newcomer Kane Hixenbaugh, who is playing for the first time as a senior. Hixenbaugh was always a lanky basketball player, but bulked up finally last year, adding athletic PE to his class schedule.
“He did a good job of working on his body and getting stronger,” Townsend noted. “He is a guy who gives us another weapon. This is a true story. I was sitting in my office, looking at my roster and I said to myself that the only thing we are really missing is a big receiver type. Five minutes later, Kane walked in the door. I think I said ‘are you serious’. I should have played the lottery that day,” he joked.
“I think by the end of the year, he will be doing some big time things for us,” he added.
Depth wise up front, Jones’ backup at centers will be McGill or Austin, who both have center experience. Landon Stewart will be the sophomore center. Noah Kunce will back up at guard.
Fairfield has good size at tackle off the bench as well, including 6-8, 300-pounder Logan Kreiter and 6-5, 245-pounder Kaelor McWilliams.
Kreiter is a perfect example of what has separated the Mules program from the pack in the BDC. Most other league teams would be reliant upon a sophomore of his size. For the Mules, he is a luxury they can be patient with, much like they were with Gonzalez last year.
“I have been there. I have had to play that sophomore that maybe wasn’t quite ready, even though he was a good sophomore. We have three or four sophomores who a lot of years would be starting for us. What that allows us to do is they can play both ways on Monday nights and come out and contribute in packages and special teams on Fridays. I am not having to throw them to the wolves. I think that is why we have been able to build a program,” Townsend said. “We have some young guys who will play, but we can put them in positions to be successful, and not solely reliant on them as sophomores.”
If a coach wanted to play mind games, he could easily make sure Gonzalez and Kreiter were the first two to step off the bus every week.
“Kreiter and AJ are both 6-8, 300-pound kids who are on some college radars simply because of their size. It just goes to them developing and flipping that switch on Friday nights, but they have the size to play at the next level,” Townsend explained.
Defensively, the Mules have starters back at every level, even the ones who started somewhere else last year.
Up front, Dagg returns at defensive end, after being named to the second-team BDC defense last year. Austin will be used on this side of the ball more this year, claiming the other defensive end spot. He will be pushed by K. Dagg, a sophomore with a nose for the ball, while Blake Pruitt can slide down to end some from linebacker as well, something he did some last year.
On the interior of the five-man front, Townsend planes to go with a rotation of big men.
“Chandler McGill has been one of our pleasant surprises. He did not play much defense last year. He is big, strong, can get off the ball, his first step is quick. He will start both ways, but we also hope to have a rotation on the interior,” he said.
Ryan Conrad will play some nose, while Jonathon Scott, Downen and Noah Kunce play defensive tackle. Gonzalez could anchor the goal line sets as well.
“You will not look at any of those guys and be intimidated, but as far as getting off the football and getting to where they are suppose to, which is what we do. We stunt, we loop around. Those guys are good for that,” Townsend said.
Who’s The New Guy?
Linebacker should be an area of strength for Fairfield, with Pruitt returning and Gardner moving in from Olney. Gardner started for the 4A squad last year as a sophomore and has quickly established himself in the middle.
“I treat him like a returning starter. He is very good, has a nose for the football and is very smart. He is a quiet kid but communicates well. He is actually the one taking the calls out there. He is going to have a big-time year for us,” Townsend said.
“I think Gardner can be our biggest surprise. People will be wondering where he came from. He is going to have a big year for us.”
For depth at linebacker, the Mules can plug in Wells or slide Carter down from his strong safety spot.
Carter returns at safety and Gilbert at one corner, but the Mules will have to replace Lee, the defensive BDC captain, and honorable mention safety Logan Trent.
Stepping in will be Massie at corner and Cayden Taylor at free safety, with sophomores Best, M. Taylor and Robbins working in on the pass defense packages.
Punting and kicking off this year will be Carter again. Townsend also thinks the depth will pay off on special teams, something that has been an Achilles’ heel most years.
“Putting our specials teams together. They are outstanding, the personnel we have. Hopefully it translates to the field. Our depth has allowed us to really beef up our special teams and get some guys some breaks. I anticipate them being better this year.”
The Mules have gotten to the point in the BDC where they get the MTC Woodlawn basketball treatment. You pick them until someone proves you wrong. With 20 straight league wins, they need six more to tie the record for consecutive BDC victories. That record is held by Johnston City and then-coach Mike Rude, who is a co-head coach for week one opponent Sesser-Valier this year.
“We have to stay healthy to do that, and a lot of things have to fall into place, but we absolutely want that,” Townsend said.
Within the league, Sesser-Valier and Chester look to be the biggest challenges, and those games come in the first three weeks for the Mules. They host the Devils in week one and travel to Chester in week two. In between, they travel to Johnston City.
But they are also thinking beyond the BDC now, with just two more years of league play left before the state switches to districts.
“The mind set last year of experiencing that playoff win, this team wants more of that. We have won conference three years in a row, and we want to do that again.”
Dance With The Devils In Week One
Sesser will be a test right out of the gate for the Mules, in a rematch from a week 9 game won by the Mules last year, 32-16. Sesser, who finished 7-3 last year, had eyes on the conference championship last year but got decimated by injuries.
They lost their quarterback last year, which means Peyton Bates returns with some experience this year. He has the best receiver in the conference in Tanner Eubanks to throw too. Jaden Lance returns in the backfield, getting more carries after star and team leader Eli Gunter was injured.
They lost all-conference first team linemen in Grant Tobin and Thomas Combs, but return an all-conference linebacker/lineman in Matthew Thery. Garrett Gunter was an all-conference honorable mention as a sophomore last year.