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Clifton’s youth movement shows promise in lone scrimmage against Whitney Wildcats Thursday

CLIFTON — It’s been said that a tie is like kissing your sister. Likewise,  it could be said that a scrimmage resembles arm wrestling your grandmother. No matter which way it goes, it doesn’t really mean anything.

After watching the Clifton Cubs host the Whitney Wildcats in the lone scrimmage allowed by the University Interscholastic League prior to the 2020 Texas high school football season due to COVID-19 mitigations, one could argue that both adages rang true. For those keeping count, the controlled scrimmage ended in a 6-6 tie Thursday evening at Cub Stadium.

Clifton junior quarterback Griffin Phillips celebrates after scoring the Cubs’ lone touchdown in Thursday’s scrimmage against Whitney at Cub Stadium.

But following a slow start during the first series of plays on both sides of the ball, the young and inexperienced Class 3A, Division II Clifton squad gave the veteran and talented Class 3A, DI Whitney unit all it could handle.

“We have a very young team, and I think that showed in the early part of the scrimmage,” Clifton football head coach Chuck Caniford said.  “But I was very pleased with how they adjusted and improved throughout the night. I think that they adapted to the speed of the game pretty quickly, and we started to move the ball more efficiently.” 

With only eight seniors on the squad, the Cubs replaced the entire 2019 offensive starting backfield and more than half of the offensive line. Consequently, the Clifton offensive attack got off to a slow start and turned the ball over three times.

“We will have a different look on offense this year, built around the skill sets of our kids,” Caniford said. “We did some really good things, but have to be more consistent. And we have to take care of the football better.”

 But after failing to pick up a first down on their first controlled set of 10 plays, the Cubs struck quickly for their lone score of the scrimmage to open the running clock segment.  Senior wide receiver Luis Rodriguez hauled in a pass from junior quarterback Griffin Phillips for a 56-yard gain. Then on the next play, Phillips turned the corner for a 17-yard scoring scamper to put Clifton on the scoreboard.

The Cub defense forced a fumble on Whitney’s ensuing possession. But on Clifton’s first play from scrimmage, the Wildcats picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown for Whitney’s only score.

Despite showing some flashes of explosiveness, the Cub offensive unit could not put together another scoring drive. But in the meantime, the Clifton defense completely shut down the Wildcats, led by returning junior quarterback Garrett Peacock, who guided Whitney to a district title before winning two playoff games for the time in school history in 2019.

“I was very pleased with how we played defensively,” Caniford said. “We didn’t give up a score on defense, which is always a good thing. We still have a lot of work to do, but I am very excited about what I saw.”

When the UIL announced an amended 2020-21 athletic calendar to accommodate for the COVID-19 outbreak across the state July 21, it didn’t appear to impact Clifton at first glance. After all, schools in the 1A through 4A classifications would continue forward as planned by beginning practice Aug. 3 and starting games on time Aug. 27.

In the meantime, Class 6A and 5A schools, primarily located in highly-populated urban areas, were issued a delay of about a month with practice beginning Sept. 7, games starting Sept. 24, and the season pushed back so that the state title games would be played in January. And likewise, the UIL urged smaller schools in COVID-19 hot spots to do the same.

As one of the designated COVID hot spots in Texas, McLennan County health officials recommended that schools delay opening regardless of classification. With that announcement, Clifton found itself looking to replace three of their four non-district opponents. And Caniford left nothing to chance, wasting little time in making sure the Cubs would play a full 10-game schedule.

Originally scheduled to open the season hosting Bosqueville Aug. 28 before facing West, Maypearl and McGregor in non-district games, Clifton will now open the season on the road against Class 4A, DII Sanger at Aledo’s Bearcat Stadium, play the home opener against Class 3A, DI Academy Sept. 4, then visit Class 3A, DI Maypearl and host Class 2A, DII’s 11th-ranked Tenaha before opening District 13-3A, DII competition at home against Riesel Sept. 25.

Without question, the revised 2020 schedule represents arguably one of the toughest Caniford has lined up in his seven years at the helm in Clifton. And with only one scrimmage allowed this season, Thursday’s live action took on even more importance.

“There were a lot of good things that we are going to be able to teach off of the film that will help us continue to improve,” Caniford said. “At this point in the season, it’s all about getting better every day, and that needs to be our focus.”

Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS

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