Cleo Chandler

Cleo Chandler and the Cleburne Yellow Jackets are set to host former district foe Burleson Centennial for a scrimmage on Friday at the Cleburne High School turf field.

After seemingly the longest wait ever, the Cleburne Yellow Jackets will finally line up against an opponent Friday when they host the Burleson Centennial Spartans for each team’s lone scrimmage of the season.

Cleburne and other Class 5A and 6A programs across the state are two-and-a-half weeks into official fall practices after the UIL delayed the start of 6A and 5A fall sports by a month. And this weekend, 6A and 5A programs will be able to hold scrimmages in preparation for week 1 action on Sept. 24-26.

Cleburne Coach Casey Walraven said this week’s scrimmage is the first real sign that the season is near.

“I think we’re ready for the season to truly be here and that means getting to go against an opponent,” Walraven said. “When we put on the helmets [Sept. 7], it felt closer. But until you get to go against an opponent, that’s when the reality finally sets in that we are going to have a season and all the adversity the last few months we’ve been working to overcome is paying off and we’re getting to the point we want. The excitement’s there, it’s just a matter of getting to Friday and getting out on the field and having fun.”

For the past eight years, Cleburne and Burleson Centennial have been district counterparts, and the Jackets and Spartans have developed quite the rivalry even though Centennial has won the past six meetings, including a wild 56-55 overtime win a year ago. 

But Walraven said both coaches have spent time talking to their players about approaching this scrimmage the right way.

“The first goal for both schools is to come out healthy,” Walraven said. “Coach [Kyle] Geller and I have discussed we want to do the scrimmage the right way. We’re not playing each other anymore and we’re not in the same district, this is a scrimmage. You have that tension there from past years, but we want to stay healthy and help get each other ready for our seasons. They’re a great opponent to do that. 

“We’ve been preaching to the guys we’re going to do this the right way. It’s not a game, it’s a scrimmage. You still want to compete but we’re going to have different rules, quicker whistles and things like that. So we’ll need to win within the rules. The fact of being familiar with them is there, but at the end of the day we’re approaching it differently than we would if it were a game.”

As is the case with scrimmages, Walraven said he’s looking for new players stepping up and filling voids left by graduation off last year’s team.

“The kids that’s excelled in the past, we know what they’re capable of,” Walraven said. “We want to make sure they’re still doing their part obviously but we need to see the inexperienced positions perform. There’s some jobs still up in the air with competition going. We want to see where we’re at right now and figure out who the best 11 are in each phase of the game so we can roll out that first week against Hallsville and feel good about things and start the season with a win and get our confidence going.”

Offensively, the Jackets are relatively set at several positions, including at quarterback where Gunner Hammond is a three-year starter, as well as running back with Cleo Chandler and one receiver position with Gavin Naquin. Cleburne brings back a few starters on the offensive line, and that’s a position Walraven will pay close attention to Friday.

“I’ve got really high expectations for us up front so I want to see where we’re at up front,” he said. “We’re bigger than we’ve been and we’re stronger than we’ve been, so I want to see it translating into us being physical up front. There’s a couple spots at receiver where we need some playmakers to take a spot. We’ve got competition going there and we need to see who those guys are and who’s going to block. That’s so important for us with our receivers so we’ve got to be unselfish and get that done and be able to execute and be playmakers. I want to see how they react if they drop a ball or miss a block. And we want to try to get in a best rhythm with Gunner and execute the best we can.”

Defensively, Cleburne graduated a few key pieces, including linebackers Braxton Bailey and Jaxon Bigham, but the Jackets do return safety Anthony Chanta, cornerback Braden Gunn, linebackers Nico Keramidis and Sterling Bryant, along with a few defensive linemen.

“We’ve got proven guys out there but then there’s some spots that are definitely inexperienced,” Walraven said of the defense. “The main thing Friday is flying around defensively and playing within the rules of the scrimmage and tackling well. That’s going to determine who’s getting that playing time at those positions is those guys who are flying to the football and tackling well. We’ve been doing that in practice but I want to see it against an opponent.”

The scrimmage is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Friday at the Cleburne High School turf field with the junior varsity and freshmen in action. The varsity will follow at approximately 7:15 p.m.

Fans are encouraged to bring chairs to sit around the track to help with social distancing because of limited seating in the stands. Face coverings will be required in addition to social distancing. Cleburne fans may donate snacks, water or Gatorade/Powerade to help fuel the Jackets in 2020.

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