For most of the season, the Southwestern University Pirates football team has been plugging leaks across its depth chart as injuries have created new holes ever so closer to below the waterline; threatening to sink the season.
In times of duress, the Pirates have become ever more reliable on their senior leadership. This week, Southwestern University will lean on and celebrate its 17 football seniors before the last home game of their collegiate careers.
Across the field from them is a Howard Payne University Yellow Jackets team with a talented offense that ranks fourth in the ASC in passing yardage, averaging 226.0 per game and chomping at the bit to face a depleted Pirate defense.
"Howard Payne has really good receivers and two good quarterbacks. They're doing a good job of developing talented offensive players," Head Coach Joe Austin said. "With the limited experience we have on defense, it's going to be a challenge. We're in a position where we're changing our defensive structure to accommodate who we have left and moving some players around by necessity."
The success the Pirates have had this season has come from a defense that for the most part has refused to sink, guided in part by team captain Josiah Minnifield.
This season, Minnifield has led the team in tackles with 43, including 29 solo. The defensive back has also broken up four passes playing across multiple positions as needed. Though the roles he's had to take haven't always best suited him, they've been best for a short-handed Pirate defense.
"He's always positive and energetic and I think all the guys are attracted to those qualities," Austin said. "He's an unselfish player. I'm certain he's sacrificed stats by playing where we need him rather than where he's best at.
"He has a team-first mentality and I think the example he sets for us is real important."
From week to week, the Pirates' senior defensive players have had to deal with questions about the depth chart, including, some weeks, whether they'd be healthy enough to make it.
Linebacker Hayden Smith was among the team leaders in tackles until an injury ended his season, leaving him with 33 tackles in five games with seven for a loss of 28 yards and one interception.
"Hayden was playing very well. He was another guy who is really versatile and could play in a bunch of different places," Austin said. "He was having a really nice season and it was unfortunate to see him go down."
Still, senior defensive ends Garrett Womack and Nicholas Smith have set a foundation at the line of scrimmage the rest of the team can fill in around. Womack has been a disruptive force all season, leading the ASC in sacks with 7.5 for a loss of 30 yards, and ranking third in tackles for loss with 12 for 42 yards. Smith has 35 tackles and 1.5 sacks for 10 yards with a 6.5 tackles for a loss of 17 yards.
"It's sad they're a little banged up now because they were so productive when they were healthy," Austin said. "They make a lot of plays and played off each other, energized each other. They've become so disruptive. They're probably the two players on the whole team who will be the most difficult to replace next year."
On the offensive end, the Pirates have gone through multiple quarterbacks due to injury for a unit that was already young to begin with, starting sophomore Austin Emery backed up by sophomore Coleman Kerr with first years Landry Gilpin and J.J. Slack, who was moved mid-season from his wide receiver position.
One of the few constants has been team captain David Brandenburg. The slot receiver remains a dynamic playmaker, accumulating 412 receiving yards on a 17.2 per catch average with four receiving touchdowns. He has also been a threat in the run game from his slot receiver position, running for 197 yards on 27 carries for one touchdown.
"He's very versatile and has been a really important player for us the past three years," Austin said. "He's also done a great job as a team captain. It's important to him. He has a desire to lead, he wants to be a coach someday, so he's trying to develop those skills. I think the fact he wants to take on a leadership role and the desire to be great at it is important."
With the return of Emery last week, the Pirates' most experienced quarterback, Brandenburg got back on track with 54 rushing yards on four carries and a rushing and receiving touchdown.
Emery's mastery of the nuances of the Pirates' run game, from fakes to pitches and running lanes reinvigorated an offensive line led by senior T.J. Vela. Vela, who suffered a season-ending injury last season, has had a strong season on the field and in the locker room.
"T.J. is another really good leader. Everyone on the team looks to him as a positive role model who knows his job, does his job, and is also there to pick other folks up," Austin said. "He's really great with the younger players, teaching them."
The Pirates will need a strong performance from the line, establishing the run to win the field position and time of possession battle to help the injured defense. Part of that will be finding balance.
Last week, Emery revived the Pirate rushing attack but was rusty in the passing game, having only been cleared the day before the game. With a full week taking starter's repetitions in practice, the Pirates should have a more dynamic offense.
"He was very rusty in the passing game but as far as directing our run game and making our offense smoother, he did a great job," Austin said. "But as an offense, we didn't play well in the second half. In the first, we were throwing because we wanted to, in the second, it was because we had to."
For the Pirates to stay afloat, they will need steady presences from the aforementioned seniors, along with classmates Keyshaan Castle, Christopher Crawford, Luke Fierst, Phillip Keys, Blair Orr, Max Patton, Tate Schorr, Devin Shaw, William Spaulding, Anfernee Stephens, and Jared Wiggins, all of whom will be honored on Saturday.