BRISTOL, Tenn. – Win or go home.
That is what the playoffs are all about. Just don’t expect any negative thoughts from Tennessee High senior Damian Duff.
“I like the pressure. It don’t really get to me, but I know everybody tells me about it, how you are going to go home,” said Duff, whose Vikings open the TSSAA Class 5A playoffs tonight by hosting the Gibbs Eagles. “All I can think in the back of my head is we are going to play the next week.”
That is the plan for the Vikings (9-1), who have won nine in a row, with the Eagles (7-3) winning four straight and six of their last seven games.
“Probably the hottest team in that region right now…,” said Tennessee High head coach Mike Mays, whose Vikings have picked up eight of their nine wins by at least 23 points. “They have got things going down there and we just got a tough draw first game. Whoever you play from Knoxville will be a tough game anyway so our guys know that.”
Schools in Northeast Tennessee often hear about the pitfalls of playing Knoxville schools in the postseason. The Vikings did it last season, winning at South Doyle 24-17 in the opening round.
“I feel like we are overlooked a lot. Just like last year we was overlooked and we went down and played South Doyle,” Duff said. “It was a freezing cold game. It was down to the wire, but it was all mental.
“These games are going to be in the playoffs and we are just going to challenge ourselves to go against them. I think we have pretty good athletic ability to be able to match the Knoxville teams.”
It will be cold tonight as well, with temperatures expected to plummet into the 30s as the 7 p.m. kickoff approaches.
“You never know what you will get in the playoffs,” Mays said. “They are going to play in the same thing we are playing in. We are built for the cold weather so our kids are excited to play. We are not worried about the cold. It is what it is.”
What does concern the Vikings is Gibbs’ senior quarterback Troy Davis, who directs the Eagles’ triple-option attack, having run for 1,113 yards and 17 touchdowns on the season. He can also surprise the opposition with the pass when they least expect it.
“They have got an interesting triple-option scheme where we have to play assignment football and just play as hard as we can play,” Mays said. “When they throw the guys are open because you have got to play the run so much. We were kind of in that situation last year with our offense.
“They have got a great quarterback that can really run. He is a strong kid. We are going to have to get up on option and when they do throw it recognize the reads.”
Duff has been a key cog for a stingy Tennessee High defense, having contributed 56 tackles, nine sacks, 12 stops for negative yardage and two forced fumbles for the Vikings.
“He has got a motor. He can rush the passer like no other, but he is going to have to play some option responsibilities this week,” Mays said. “He is one of those kids that is going to give 100 percent every play and we trust what he is going to do out on the field.”
The 190-pound Duff has overcome his lack of size to rank fourth on the Vikings in tackles, trailing linebackers Connor Bailey (79), Bryce Snyder (64) and Trevor Dowdell (58).
“That is my main thing. I am not the biggest guy out there when I can go against a 300-pound man at 190, but I have got the speed,” Duff said. “I know how to use technique and use my hands to get away.”
Tonight, he just wants to play his role.
“I am used to rushing the passer and getting away from the big guys, but I also know how to play my role and strap my helmet on and go back and forth and hit the big guys and play the dive and everything else,” Duff said. “If one person loses responsibility then they make the other ten pay for it out on the field.”
Offensively, the Vikings will depend on heady senior Cole McBrayer, who has thrown for 1,853 yards, 23 touchdowns and only three picks this season. He has also run for seven more scores, while distributing the ball to an array of athletes, including Isaiah Smith, Jaden Keller, Kelvin Coleman and Reece Proffitt.
“It is same story we have had all year, just get the ball in the playmaker’s hands,” Mays said. “Cole manages the game well and lets these guys make plays.”
Tennessee High, whose lone loss was a season-opening decision at Dobyns-Bennett, hopes to continue its current path, with the winner playing either David Crockett or defending 5A state champion Knox Central next week.
“There is pressure there. We have to come out and play our best football. We have been practicing all week to do that,” Mays said. “In the playoffs you are going to have some adversity and we will have to respond to it and just come out and make a play if something goes wrong.
“Our guys have done that and have been able to overcome some adversity early. We will have to do that Friday night against a real good football team.”