Inexperience on the defensive side of the ball has proven to require several moving pieces for the Jefferson City Jays through the first five weeks of the season.
The shuffling continued in last week's 49-42 overtime defeat at Chaminade, mostly on the defensive line. With Rock Bridge, De Smet, Battle and Rockhurst in front of the Jays, coach Terry Walker hopes it's time for the defensive unit to put it all together.
"We've kind of finally settled into what we think our identity is defensively, so hopefully we'll continue to improve over the next several weeks," Walker said.
The next task for the Jays' defense: stop Rock Bridge running back Nate Peat. Peat and the seventh-ranked Bruins (3-2) visit Adkins Stadium tonight. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
"He has explosive speed," Walker said of Peat, who announced his commitment to Stanford prior to last Friday's 31-0 win against Hickman. "He has the ability to be a physical running back at the point of attack. He also has the ability to make people miss and he can catch the football out of the backfield. He's got some tools when you're thinking about the things you want to look for in a running back, he possesses some of those things. It's going to take more than one guy to bring him down."
Peat has surpassed 800 yards on the ground in just five games and has broken free for multiple 90-yard runs. He can pound it up the middle, run around the defense or use a combination of finesse and physicality.But Peat isn't the only Division I-caliber offensive weapon for the Buins. Martez Manuel, who has committed to play at Missouri, has been a play-making target for quarterback Grant Hajicek.
"He runs good routes, he's a physical kid, he blocks and catches and does a real nice job both offensively and defensively," Walker said. "He's got a real good feel for the game on the defensive side of the ball and is really a quarterback in the secondary for them."
That ability to lead the defense got the attention of the Missouri Tiger coaches.
In the Bruins' three victories, the defense held Rockhurst, the fourth-ranked team in Class 6 in this week's edition of Missouri Media Rankings, to 21 points, held the explosive Battle offense to 28 points and shut out Hickman.
"They understand what they are trying to do within their scheme and they are fundamentally sound," Walker said. "They align correctly, they don't make mistakes, they're fairly simple defensively and that allows their kids to play very fast and to pursue the football."
Points haven't been hard to come by for the Jays the past two weeks. They put 27 on the board in the first half against St. Louis University High in Week 4 and a second-half rally led to a 42-point performance last week.
Devin Roberson provided the offensive spark last week with more than 350 total yards, but two interceptions that were returned for scores were costly. And Rock Bridge is coming off a game in which it used a pick-six to grab momentum in the second half.
"I think he's learned from some of those situations," Walker said. "He's been focused on stepping up in the pocket more and getting the ball out of his hand, and if there's not a play there to either run and get what he can get and not throwing the football just as a means of trying to get out of a play because that happened a couple times last week and it cost us."
Roberson's physical running style came into play last week, but Maleek Jackson has continued to show off his speed with more than 500 yards on the ground in the past three games.
"Maleek definitely shows flashes where he can be an explosive back," Walker said. "He's been running behind his pads better. It's been a constant point of emphasis, not only for Maleek, but for all of the running backs. Quite honestly, the kids have not been used to doing that. It's a work in progress. Maleek is taking the feedback and is working incredibly hard."
Tonight's game will help break up the logjam of five teams with a 3-2 record in Class 6 District 2.
Francis Howell, Blue Springs, Rock Bridge, Troy Buchanan and Jefferson City hold the top five spots in the district standings heading into Week 6.
Francis Howell hosts Fort Zumwalt West (2-3), which is sixth in the standings, tonight.
Blue Springs South and Francis Howell Central are both winless and are at the bottom of the standings.