Bennett Tigers are Better Prepared For Year Two in Class AA
Last season the Bennett Tigers made the leap into Class AA Football and fared about as well as most envisioned. The Tigers finished with a 4-4 overall record, 3-3 in the division standings. Bennett, combined with Olmsted, Middle Early College and East High-School; fought their way into the playoffs and head coach Steve McDuffie believes his team is capable of going further.
“We have a saying around here,” McDuffie said. “There’s no growth without pain or sacrifice.” The Tigers went through a little bit of each in 2017.
They were welcomed into Class AA by the Lancaster Legends and were thumped 49-16. It was over early. As bad as the score looked, there was one play that has stood out in my mind. It was Bennett’s sophomore linebacker Justin Campbell’s big hit on senior Andrew Hersey in the Legends backfield that forced a fumble. The play didn’t have an impact on the score but it showed Lancaster that the Tigers weren’t going to roll over. They might not have had the size, skill or experience to line up with Lancaster last September but eventually, like many other teams in lower divisions have found out, Bennett will improve.
This season Bennett has a number of returning players that could make All-WNY this season. Campbell, a running back, “has made considerable strides,” said McDuffie in a phone call with WNYAthletics. “Physically, emotionally, he’s matured and ready to take the next step. The thing I like most about him is he practices the right way. He runs well, blocks well, tackles well; We expect huge things from Justin.”
Along with Campbell, Jakari Nettles (TE/DE) and Aaron Smith (QB) are back. “Aaron is just a hell of a player and Jakari is a real competitor,” McDuffie said.
They did have to say goodbye to standouts Brandon Barksdale and Chris Pettiway after graduation.
Joining the Tigers in 2018 is Djae Perry (5’10, 180 lbs), a running back and junior transfer from St. Mary’s of Lancaster. McDuffie sees a little bit of his own son, Isaiah (now at Boston College) in Perry. “They are both big, fast and have elusive speed. They just run hard with a reckless abandon.”
With Campbell, Perry and Semaj Clemons in the backfield, McDuffie believes his running backs will be a major strength for his team and will be tough to contain for opposing defenses.
One player that will not be able to help out this year is wide receiver Jordan Fayson. “I really thought that Jordan was a top-3 receiver in the state. That’s how good he is,” McDuffie said. Fayson suffered a season ending injury at a scouting combine over the summer and will miss his senior season.
As far as 2017 went, Bennett beat who they should have beaten and struggled against teams they should have struggled with. Obviously Lancaster was a tough match-up, Williamsville North and Niagara Falls had much more experience and presented the Tigers their share of challenges. “For our first year up in the top division we lacked the experience more than anything. The game is faster. We had a lot of guys that were probably better suited for junior varsity to be perfectly honest,” McDuffie said.
“We have them all back and now they have the varsity experience. I felt like we had the talent. We just needed to grow as a team and go through those growing pains. That said I really like our team. Having the talent and the experience is critical,” McDuffie said.
Joining McDuffie on his staff this season is his old friend Bob O’Connor, the former St. Joe’s coach. “Years ago I worked under Bob and he’s just a wealth of knowledge. He had coached here before with me for three years before taking a little break. He (O’Connor) reached out to me a few months ago and wanted to come back,” McDuffie said. Anthony Adams will once again be working with the defensive backs while Landrey Mack is the defensive coordinator.
Teddy McDuffie is taking a leave of absence to watch his son AJ, a freshman, play at Amherst.
To prepare for the season opener, Bennett will travel to Rochester to scrimmage Section V’s Pittsford.
The Tigers will host the St. Joe’ Marauders at All-High Stadium in a non-league game in week one. “I want my guys to play the best and St. Joe’s will be a huge test. They have a very good line. We need to play against the top competition if we want to get better,” McDuffie said.
The goals remain the same for McDuffie and his Bennett Tigers, make the playoffs and anything can happen. “As long as we continue to get better, we will find success,” stated McDuffie.
Bennett hosts Lockport in week two before hitting the road for games against an improved Clarence Red Devils team and then Williamsville North. “Looking at the league, Will North probably is the top dog considering all the guys they have returning,” McDuffie said.
The Tigers welcome Lancaster in week five, followed by home games against Orchard Park and Hutch-Tech before closing out the season at Niagara Falls.