The Allen football team is bound for the second round of the playoffs once again but will carry many a heavy heart into Friday’s 8 p.m. showdown at AT&T Stadium against Rockwall.
The Eagles will take the field in Arlington donning “ME” stickers on their helmets in their first game since teammate and sophomore Marquel Ellis was shot and killed Saturday at a party in Plano.
“We feel for his family and feel for the loss. You can’t put it into words. Everybody grieves differently and we’re here for each other,” said Terry Gambill, Allen head coach. “We talked at the beginning (of practice on Monday). You just talk about how you have to care and love each other in times like this. The way you get through it is by working together and doing the things you can for his family and for each other.
“You show who you really are through these things by showing a caring and loving heart.”
Gambill said Ellis, one of just seven sophomores to crack the Allen varsity roster, was a talented, young player who loved athletics and brought a positive energy to any time spent with his teammates. Many of them took to social media following Ellis’ death to dedicate the remainder of Allen’s season to him.
“They’re handling this situation like you’d expect,” Gambill said. “They feel for the family … I’ve visited with Marquel’s parents and they want us to go out and honor Marquel in how we practice and how we play because that’s who Marquel was. He was a team player.”
The Eagles look to carry that out Friday in Arlington against Rockwall. Allen squares off against the Yellow Jackets for the second consecutive year, with the Eagles getting the better of the 2018 exchange, 52-40.
“They’re a really, really good football team. Offensively, they’ll do what they do, and the big thing for us, defensively, is that you’ve got to do your job and you’ve got to be great at tackling in open space,” Gambill said. “You have to eliminate big plays and create turnovers, but you can’t do that without doing your job. Anything less and they can expose you.”
Despite graduating quarterback Jacob Clark, Rockwall has reloaded behind sophomore Braedyn Locke and sport the area’s No. 4 offense among Class 6A programs at 494.9 yards per game — just a shade better than Allen’s 490.5. The majority of that proficiency comes through the air, where the Yellow Jackets average 300.1 yards per game on the strength of All-American pass-catcher Jaxon Smith-Njigba, the top-ranked receiver in the state.
On the year, Smith-Njigba has caught 70 balls for 1,553 yards (22.2 yards per catch) and 25 touchdowns. That includes seven games of at least 100 receiving yards and two in which the star receiver has eclipsed the 300-yard mark.
“He’s a really good football player. He creates big plays for their offense and we have to do a great job of covering him,” Gambill said. “You have to try and eliminate big plays and make them earn it.”
It’ll mark the year’s stiffest test for an Allen secondary that endured its struggles earlier in the season containing big-play receivers — surrendering at least 100 receiving yards to five different receivers over the first five games of the year. Where plenty of wounds surfaced in the downfield passing game, Rockwall has the ability to punish opponents in space with a quick-trigger passing attack that had success against the Eagles last year to the tune of 453 yards through the air.
Allen counters with a multi-pronged rushing offense that averages 233.8 yards per game to complement senior dual-threat passer Raylen Sharpe and junior receivers Blaine Green and Bryson Green. Gambill confirmed that the Eagles will be without top rusher and senior Celdon Manning due to an ACL injury, the coach is optimistic about Allen getting sophomore Jaylen Jenkins back into the fold as another option alongside juniors Jordan Johnson and Sam Hunter, as well as Sharpe.
They’ll be tasked with grinding down a Rockwall defense that has allowed at least 30 points five times this season.
“They’re very scrappy. They base out of a 3-3 and they move people at all times to create confusion,” Gambill said. “They blitz a lot, so we’ll have to execute very well in our pass protection and being able to run the football and having time to throw the football. It all has to enter the equation of success on offense.”
Matt’s Pick: Allen by 7