Sifford emerges as potent offensive threat
by Staff Writer
HUNTERSVILLE – Spring practice wasn’t smooth for Tijuan Sifford. Plenty of times, the Hopewell High senior quarterback got an earful from coach David Johnson.
“Tough love,” Johnson said, with a sly grin. “Sometimes you’ve just got to let ‘em know. Tough love in me being more emotional about his mistakes in the spring than the average coach.”
Why the verbal hammer?
“I didn’t want him to cheat himself,” Johnson said. “If you’re the quarterback, you can’t have a day off.”
Sifford did extra throwing under Johnson’s watchful eye in the offseason. They studied game film together, the former quarterback and the emerging one shoulder-to-shoulder in a dark room.
The product isn’t finished, but the early results are impressive. Sifford passed for a school-record 472 yards in a 61-59 loss to East Lincoln on Aug. 24. He had five touchdown passes. Penalties wiped out several large gains.
“He would’ve been close to 600 (yards),” Johnson said.
Sifford completed 21 of 33 passes. He had three scoring passes to Dominique Heath, covering 34, 41 and 82 yards, a 27-yard touchdown to Jonquez Williams and a 35-yarder to Brandon Holst.
Sifford said his improvement wasn’t due to anything special or different.
“I practiced, lifted weights, threw a lot and studied the playbook,” he said. “And went over plays with Coach Johnson.”
And when Johnson added that special urging, Sifford took it in stride.
“I just listened to him,” Sifford said, “and did what he said.”
Hopewell’s offense is getting to be what Johnson envisioned when he took over as coach a few weeks before the 2011 season began. Sifford and his strong arm, surrounded by speedy receivers. The Titans scored 78 points in the first two games, and Sifford launched 71 passes.
Last season, Sifford, at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, split time with another quarterback. Both were learning the new offense and weren’t quite ready to emerge in the pass-heavy attack. The Titans were able to run effectively behind Shrine Bowl running back Denzel Heath (he’s since graduated) and reach the 4A playoffs.
Sifford’s emergence began last season when he led a 91-yard drive that ended with a game-winning field goal against Hough. The following game, against Mooresville, is when Johnson said he saw Sifford step forward.
“Last year, we were searching at the quarterback position,” Johnson said. “No one really wanted to step up and take the job. Since that Mooresville game, I saw that he had it. This is what I expected. It’s not anything like `Wow, where did this come from?”
“Tijuan’s got such a heavy arm and can throw the ball so far. Much farther than your average high school quarterback. I’ve been around a few quarterbacks, and he can really zip it.”
That allows Hopewell to run a variety of pass plays to all quadrants of the field. Sifford has embraced his growing responsibilities.
“I’m learning the techniques of being a quarterback,” he said. “Staying in the pocket. Making smart throws.”
With each game, Hopewell’s offensive players will blend more effectively. And most of them will hinge on Sifford.
Johnson sees a quarterback that needed a bit of polishing last spring. Nothing radical, just a bit of fine-tuning sprinkled with confidence and experience.
“Mechanically, there were a few things we had to tweak, not necessarily change, here and there,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t like he couldn’t do it.”
Through three games, Sifford has completed 52-of-97 passes for 965 yards and 10 touchdowns. It’s a pace that will put him near 3,000 yards for the season.
Sifford has evolved into a passing threat because he has solid targets at which to aim, and he spreads the football around. Heath has 11 receptions for 315 yards and five touchdowns, Jermain Sanders has 16 catches for 293 yards and two scores, and Williams has 10 receptions for 169 yards and two touchdowns.
Sifford said he’s comfortable approaching other players to offer advice, part of the role of being a senior and quarterback.
“He’s our leader,” Johnson said. “He has developed well, and he’s playing the way we expect him to play.”
Hopewell (0-3) will play at West Charlotte in the I-MECK 4A conference opener at 7 p.m. Sept 14.