By Rubin E. Grant
With Homewood facing a third-and-24 from its own 29-yard line and trailing by a touchdown early in the fourth quarter of its first-round state playoff game, no one could have blamed the Fort Payne Wildcats for thinking the Patriots would try to get the ball to senior wide receiver TyShawn Buckner.
After all, during the regular season, Bucker had accounted for 42 percent of the Patriots’ receptions, catching 55; 51 percent of their receiving yards, with 80; and half of their touchdown catches, with six.
But Buckner was not the go-to receiver on the critical third down play. Instead, quarterback Larkin Williams connected with tight end Wilson McCraw for a 27-yard gain to keep the drive alive.
“They probably did think we were going to go to me,” Buckner said. “I ran a little stop route and I saw Wilson was wide open down the middle. The middle was open all night.”
The Patriots went on to score a touchdown to tie the score. Then they completed the improbable comeback from a 21-0 halftime deficit on David Robertson’s 13-yard scoring run – his third of the second half – with 28 seconds remaining. The 28-21 game clinched the Class 6A playoff victory.
Buckner was pretty much held in check. He caught six passes, but for only 47 yards. Despite those modest numbers, Homewood offensive coordinator David Jones said Buckner still made an impact.
“TyShawn doesn’t have to catch a lot of passes to be a factor,” Jones said. “Because other teams are so concerned about him, it opens things up for the other guys to make plays.”
Against Fort Payne, the other guy was McCraw, who had three receptions for 62 yards, including the clutch 27-yard grab.
Buckner’s development as a go-to receiver is something the Patriots had been waiting for. “I thought he might be our go-to guy last year, but it didn’t happen for whatever reason,” Jones said.
Buckner didn’t sugarcoat the reason he didn’t become a dominant receiver as a junior.
“I wasn’t mentally ready,” he said. “I was like a role player.”
So, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Buckner went to work. He spent more time training and practicing routes. Once he put in the work, “Things got easier,” he said.
Jones noticed the transformation.
“He matured, not only physically, but mentally, not only catching the ball, but also blocking,” Jones said. “He’s not a rah-rah guy, but he leads by his example and by his effort. He plays hard and he runs good route.”
Rally the Team
Buckner did become more vocal when the Patriots fell behind Fort Payne. A week after they saw their chances for an undefeated regular season evaporate with a 13-7 loss to Paul Bryant, the Patriots were in danger of seeing their promising season come to an end.
So, he and some of the other seniors began exhorting their teammates to give maximum effort.
“I didn’t want it to be the last game for the team, for the seniors and for me,” Buckner said. “So, we started talking to guys to do better. We had a lot of guys talking.”
That the Patriots would pull together was no surprise to Buckner. It’s something he’s seen all season.
“I think, overall, we’ve got a very close relationship on this team, unlike last year, when it seemed like everybody was all split up, doing their own thing,” he said. “But now, we have a better relationship with each other, with the coaches and even people at the school.”
Homewood (10-1) will need another solid effort when it plays host to Clay-Chalkville (9-2) in the second round. The Cougars eliminated the Patriots in the 2015 playoffs with a wild 40-39 victory.
“We’ll have to go 10 times harder in practice and on the scout team, and everybody has got to watch film, even the ones who don’t play much,” Buckner said. “We need everybody to contribute.”
If the Patriots can make a deep run in the playoffs, it might improve Buckner’s stock as a recruit. He’s received some offers from smaller colleges, but he wants to play at a major school.
“No matter what,” he said, “I want to play at the next level.”