Claremore’s linebacking unit believes in the old cliche ... “No pain, no gain”.
Seniors Jordan Cunningham and Brycen Short, along with junior Gage Meisinger and sophomore Baron Hope are the driving force behind Claremore’s 5-1 start and defensive success.
“It’s definitely one of our most athletic group of linebackers in a while,” Claremore head coach Rob Gilbreath said earlier this season. “They are fast, smart and fearless.”
In six games this season, Cunningham and his three ‘Blitz Brothers’ have anchored a defense that is holding opponents to 12 points per game.
Gilbreath said the success of the Zebras season so far has been attributed to the defense — all three phases (front four, linebackers and secondary).
In last week’s 20-19 loss to No. 2 East Central, the Zebras held one of the most explosive teams in Oklahoma to 154 total yards.
East Central rushed for 68 yards on 22 carries and passed for 86 on 8-of-18 completions with one interception and two touchdowns.
“We give up two big pass plays on defense, and that’s pretty much their offensive production for the night,” Gilbreath said of East Central.
“When you can stop a team as athletic as East Central, you’re definitely doing something right and opening eyes.”
Two weeks ago, Claremore’s defense held Tahlequah senior running back Mason McMillan to 64 yards on 25 carries and the Tigers’ only managed 100 total offensive yards.
Claremore’s linebackers — Cunningham, Hope, Meisinger and Short — have accounted for 223 of the Zebras’ 450 total tackles.
Cunningham leads the team with 85 while Hope follows with 76. Safety Hunter Garroutte also has 49 on the season.
This week, though, the Zebra defense faces a huge test in stopping Pryor tailback Carson Smallwood, who gained 382 yards on 19 carries in the Tigers’ win over Grove last Friday.
“Carson Smallwood, according to stats, is the best running back in Class 5A,” Gilbreath said. “He is a big physical runner that possesses great speed.”
So far this season, Smallwood has 126 carries for 1,053 yards and 18 touchdowns. He is averaging 8.4 yards per carry.
Against Grove, Smallwood scored on runs of 72, 49, 24, 55, 2 and 45 yards.
“Pryor is coming in with a lot of confidence and enthusiasm,” Gilbreath said. “They are coming off two victories over Grove and Central and they’ve beaten us the last two years.”