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PREP FOOTBALL: Trojans looking ahead, not in the past (8/20)

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By Chuck Jones

The North Hardin Trojans have turned the page on last season. Instead of dwelling on the past, they are firmly focused on the future and making sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

In Brent Thompson’s first season, not much went the way the Trojans envisioned. Injuries mounted and the coaching staff was constantly making changes. Players never were able to settle into roles.

After winning two of their first three games, they dropped seven of their last eight, including the final four of the season. The spread offense, which Thompson implemented, showed flashes of brilliance, but sputtered at times, failing to score more than 14 points in four games. The defense was even worse, allowing 351 points, including giving up 30 or more points in seven games.

The Trojans believe the second year in the system will go much smoother. They return five starters on offense and seven on defense, giving Thompson a strong nucleus to build around.

“The goal is to always keep getting better as a whole and at your job,” North Hardin senior Maurice Diggs said. “And we want to do way better than 3-8. We get reminded of that every day either by coaches or players. They’re always bringing it up. We have to work harder and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

This season, players understand better what Thompson and the coaching staff expects on a daily basis. The Trojans have picked up the pace in practice, something Thompson has preached from Day One.

“What we needed to learn was how to work and give effort every day,” North Hardin senior Dante Johnson said. “Those things carry over in games, but it starts in practice. I feel like we’ve gotten better, but it’s on-going. We’re practicing faster. The pace has picked up and we’re conditioning better. We’re working harder to have a better season.”

It’s going to start on the defensive side of the ball. The Trojans gave up 342.1 yards per game in the regular season, including 208.8 on the ground. Thompson hopes the second year within the same defensive scheme will be beneficial to the Trojans.

“We went back to the basics,” Thompson said. “We have a couple more kids out this year and we believe they can help us out. That’s not an area where we weren’t that good at last year. We know that. We know that we have to be better and I think we will be this season.”

Defensive coordinator Mark Carroll said the Trojans will be younger and inexperienced on that side of the ball. They will only start three seniors – defensive end D.J. Lee and cornerbacks E.J. Babauta and Daniel Wesley – and one concern is only Lee is among the front eight.

“We’ve got a little more size on defense this year,” Thompson said. “We might not have as much speed, but we have more size. We’ve had a full year in the weight room. We’ll be young in some areas, but knowing the scheme and what to do will help out.”

The Trojans also must find a way to replace Johnny Hopkins, the unquestioned leader of last year’s defense. Thompson believes junior inside linebacker Jeremiah Draper, who started last season, could fill that role.

“We’re in the process of molding one,” Thompson said. “Jeremiah played last year. He knows where everyone’s supposed to be and knows what everyone’s supposed to be doing. It’s always a concern when you lose someone like Johnny, but Jeremiah played alongside Johnny, so I think he saw what it’s like to be a leader.”

Meanwhile, the offense should be much improved this season. The Trojans averaged 25 points and 331.5 yards per game last year.

 Senior Andrew Rugerio returns at quarterback after throwing for 2,600 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. Johnson led the team in receptions (66) and receiving yards (861), while sophomore Taven Graves rushed for 224 yards and caught 25 passes for 137 yards. Graves and Johnson combined for 12 scores.

The Trojans graduated receivers Kirk Oxendine, Dontre Woodruff and Vincent Dobbins and running back TreVon Johnson, who combined for 1,700 receiving yards, 472 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns. Senior Kevin Dyer steps into the H-back position, while seniors Dominique Gully and Darius Walters are expected to get the first crack at the X and Y receiver spots.

“Across the board, we’ve gotten better,” Rugerio said. “We’re going faster this year. We didn’t play as fast as we wanted last season. I think that’s going to help us. We’re playing closer to the pace Coach Thompson wants. I think we’ve improved, so we’re able to play that way.”

While the Trojans have talent at the skill positions, Diggs said the key will be the offensive line. Diggs has started since he was a sophomore, while senior Malcolm Williams and junior LaMichael Johnson started last year.

“I think the sky’s the limit for our offense,” Diggs said. “We’re getting more organized and where we want to be. A lot of it’s going to fall on the line. I think we just need to keep getting better. If we do that, we have the guys that can make plays for us.”

The Trojans, who reached the second round of the playoffs in 2011, realize last season was a disappointment, but they believe they can take a giant step forward this season.

“Our goal is not to win 15 games, but to win the 15th game,” Rugerio said. “We don’t have to win every game to achieve what we want. We have to win five in a row and win the 15th game. We want to win the first week in December. That’s the goal this year.”

Chuck Jones can be reached at (270) 505-1759 or cjones@thenewsenterprise.com.