North Hardin is the team to beat and Coach Brent Thompson would have it no other way.
“We talked about it after our 9-3 season (in 2018), that we were going to have a bullseye on our own back and I would be the one to put it there,” he said. “I’ll take the heat for it. I feel like our kids are ready for it. The second this group is back getting after it, they’ll be ready to go a couple steps further.”
Those two steps are victories in the Class 6-A state semifinals and final to lift the trophy at Kroger Field.
The Trojans have lost in the playoffs the last two seasons to the eventual state champions.
“It personally motivates me,” Thompson said. “Last year we were in the semifinals and you watch that game and see how it played out definitely makes you want to be there and win it.”
Louisville Trinity defeated North Hardin in last year’s semifinals at Ray Story Stadium.
“That night they were obviously the best team and were the best team at the end of the season and eventually that wins you a state championship,” Thompson said.
North Hardin has questions going into the 2020 season after a 13-1 campaign and most are on the lines on both sides of the ball.
The Trojans lost three starters on the offensive line via graduation.
“We probably have a little better understanding on the offensive line who will come in and start because they got in there and got some playing time last year,” Thompson said. “I know they’ve had a pretty good offseason. We’ll move them up from backup to starter and see what they do on Friday nights.”
The obvious biggest losses for the Trojans came on the defensive side of the ball in Octavious Oxendine, Darren Green, Jerrell Campbell, Isaiah Beasley, Vesi Lilo and Eian Patry.
Finding people to take over the defensive line to replace Oxendine, Campbell, Beasley and Lilo and at linebacker for Green is a top priority.
“Not having spring ball puts us a little behind knowing who we feel like can make some plays up front,” Thompson said. “We’re not changing anything in our scheme, but losing those five guys up front, we definitely wanted to see who would step up during spring and give us an idea. But, it will be a little longer to see and now we’ll get to see when the gear is on.”
The five up front combined for 144 solo tackles, 135 assisted tackles, 81 tackles for loss and 50 sacks with Campbell missing the final four games after an injury in the final regular season game.
This is another place where the Trojans not having players playing on both sides of the ball consistently is a plus.
“We’re not trying to replace two starters with one guy,” Thompson said. “Our kids have been able to get a lot of reps. The guys behind those five are eager to step up and see what they can do on Fridays.”
Patry had eight interceptions totaling 168 return yards and a pick six. He also had 28 solo tackles.
North Hardin returns Michael Lunz, Jordan Lovett, Jordan Moore, Devonte Lemafa, Micah Parmes and Elijah Banks on defense. Moore and Banks had pick sixes last year.
Lunz has been the second-leading tackler the past two seasons from his linebacker spot and Lovett led the nation last season with 15 interceptions. Lunz has committed to Arkansas State and Lovett to Kentucky.
“Because those two gentlemen played the snaps they played the last two years, we’re definitely going to rely on their leadership,” Thompson said. “Their leadership inside the locker room is the biggest thing, also out in the community.
“We’ve got some other good kids out there returning on the defensive side of the ball who will make plays for us.”
North Hardin returns a lot of key skill pieces on offense, losing only top receiver Josh Moore — 43 receptions, 903 yards and 10 touchdowns — to graduation. Moore had 109 catches for 2,127 yards and 25 touchdowns the past two seasons.
“Last year we returned a lot on defense and we had some skill back on offense, but our biggest question mark was at quarterback,” Thompson said. “Going into this year at quarterback we’ve got two guys who played quite a bit. Offensively, I’m the lease stressed. We have some question marks up front, but with all the skill we have coming back, it makes it a lot easier and I don’t feel there will be much of a struggle to line up early on in July if we get back out there.”
The receiving corps returns Kent State commit Marcus Harris, Camron Smith and Ramaj Adams, who combined to haul in 122 passes for 1,871 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Quarterback Manie Wimberly was 162-for-246 for 2,649 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, while Logan Coleman was 58-for-102 for 959 yards, seven touchdowns and seven picks.
It will be no secret who will carry the rock.
Senior University of Kentucky commit La’Vell Wright ran it 270 times last year for 1,864 yards and 26 touchdowns.
“He wants the ball,” Thompson said. “Like a basketball player wants the ball for the last shot and a baseball player wants to be at the plate hitting with the bases loaded in the last inning, when the game is on the line, La’Vell wants the ball in his hands. A lot of that is a testament to him, the way he works in the offseason. His conditioning is key and Coach (Dominique) Adams puts him through some stuff.
“Sometimes guys with talent don’t want to work hard. That can’t be said about La’Vell.”
Wright also had 34 catches for 553 yards and three scores.
Thompson said he expects his leaders to lead, whether they are in quarantine or in the locker room.
“These upperclassmen have done a pretty good job making sure the workouts are being done, keeping an eye on the younger guys,” he said. “They make sure the younger guys get the workouts. The veteran group we have coming back obviously will help us and the talented group we have coming back will help us.”
For now, like everyone, it’s wait and see.
“I’m basing my preparation when we get back from the regular dead period on July 10,” Thompson said. “Anything we get before then is great. If we don’t get it ... as long as we’re back in July, we’ll all be fine. We just have to do what we do and be ready whenever the KHSAA says we can go.”