Depth, kicking and experience on up for Cougars
The North Harrison High School football program is well aware of what it returns in the backfield. All-state candidates Sam Best and Austin Nevil ‘ bruising backs ‘ combined for 2,566 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns last season. Those are numbers any coach would drool to see come back for senior seasons.
Although it’s easy for Best and Nevil to draw the headlines, there are plenty of returning players from a Cougars’ team that went 4-7 a year ago.
It was a rough start last season. Weather caused the Crawford County game to be canceled, followed by tight losses to Corydon Central, Salem and Silver Creek. North Harrison started the campaign 1-5.
Then the Cougars found a groove on defense and relied on the running of their stellar duo to close the season by winning four of the last seven outings. It included a shutout of Salem in a revenge game during the postseason run.
The year concluded with a narrow loss to heavily-favored Charlestown in the Class 3A sectional final.
This year, the Cougars want a quicker start.
‘Defensively, we are more set than we were at this time last year,’ fourth-year coach Mark Williamson said. ‘We finally were set toward the second half of last season, and it showed because we got better and better defensively.’
Developing depth has been something Williamson wanted to instill when he first took over the muddling program. Although the roster has seven seniors, the remainder of the classes are full with between 15 to 20 players in the freshmen through junior classes.
‘This is the most depth I’ve had here, and it’s only going to get better,’ Williamson said.
The middle of North Harrison’s defense ‘ the linebacking core ‘ returns the same three names. As a sophomore a year ago, Evan Goodman had a break-out year at the middle spot. He paced the team in tackles (55 solo and 33 assists). Garrett Nokes, a senior, will be on one side of Goodman, while junior Ethan Hamby is on the other.
‘Goodman started both ways last year and had a great year,’ Williamson said. ‘He led our team in tackles, not by a few, but by a bunch.’
Among the backups are Brett Rudolph, Josh Kemp and Tate Griffin.
Much of the hype around Best and Nevil are on the offensive side, but the backs also are stout on defense. Both line up at defensive end, with each causing three fumbles last season. Best (four) and Nevil (two) were the team leaders in sacks.
Playing inside will be a rotation of Levi Senn, Nick Foley, Mason Keeling and Isaiah DeGrasse. The defensive line not only has size, but also physical strength.
In the secondary, senior Trey Kuerzi returns from injury to join sophomore Avery Blocker at the safety positions. Lined up at corner will be Jake Troxell and Lee Manwaring. Lowell Bezy also can step in.
Kuerzi, a player who has battled injuries for three seasons, is back healthy. His impact could be huge. In limited action last year, he came up with three interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
‘He’s an impact player for us,’ Williamson said of Kuerzi. ‘He’s worked very hard to come back and has to be out there. He knows it.’
Many of the defensive players for North Harrison also will line up on offense.
Nevil and Best will line up at the tailback and full-back positions. Nevil carried the ball 171 times for 810 yards, while Best tallied 1,756 yards on 260 touches.
‘Both are physical, hard runners,’ Williamson said. ‘They are both physical and won’t go down with an arm tackle. They’ll have to be wrapped up.’
Holding on to the ball is key, too. Between them, they fumbled just three times during the course of last season.
‘Sam has gotten stronger and leaner,’ Williamson said of the 6-1, 238-pound back. ‘He’s faster and a year more experienced. He’s become a great leader, helping other guys. I think he’s one of the better players in Southern Indiana, in my opinion.’
The talented backs have a passion for football, which Williamson appreciates. With weight lifting an emphasis in the program, Best is one of 24 players to make the 1,000-pound club (combined maximum lift in bench press, squat and dead-lift). Four guys made more than 1,400, while Best was a jaw-dropping 1,630.
At quarterback, the Cougars have to replace three-year starter Jack Phelps, who graduated. Sliding under center is sophomore Avery Blocker. He saw a glimpse of Friday night action last season, not only starting games at safety, but rotated in at quarterback in the sectional final.
‘He’s got good awareness and football savvy,’ Williamson said. ‘He’s a football player that plays quarterback. He’s not just a quarterback focused on mechanics; he’s an all-the-way-around football player. It helps he’s athletic.’
While running the ball is North Harrison’s bread and butter, Williamson won’t be afraid to throw it due to the development of his receivers. Hamby (6-1), Manwaring (6-4), Nokes (6-1) and Troxell (6-4) are long and athletic pass-catching options.
Kuerzi has learned a new role in the offense, sliding into tight end. Nick Parker and Rudolph can play tight end as well.
Up front, Nick Foley slides over from left tackle to play center. On the left side, Collin Smith and Levi Senn provide three juniors on the line. To the right, seniors Keeling and DeGrasse are back as well. DeGrasse is listed at 6-6 and 305 pounds.
‘All five started at least a few games last year, with Foley, DeGrasse and Keeling starting 10,’ Williamson said.
From the backfield, Goodman will do the dirty work from blocking back position.
All 11 listed starters on offense started at least two games last year, a note the skipper said is rare.
‘We know our identity every year is going to be the same,’ Williamson said. ‘We have the ability to stretch the field more than in years past, but we’re not going to get too far away from what we do.’
The third phase of the game ‘ special teams ‘ was an area that needed to be addressed. The offseason featured work in the school’s hallways and soccer pitch.
Junior Dylan Dukes has put time in practicing long and short snapping for the kickers. Doing the placekicking will be Ben Waynescott, a sophomore from the boys’ soccer program.
‘Ben and Dylan are really going to help our kicking game,’ Williamson said. ‘It’s 100 percent better. Dylan is a little guy, but he worked all winter snapping in the hallway. He’s gotten pretty good.’
Three losses last season were by one possession. Increased emphasis on the kicking game will, hopefully, flip those losses the other direction.
‘It has been a nemesis for us,’ the coach said. ‘I’m not saying it will be our greatest strength, but it will be much improved. We couldn’t snap and hold last year.’
Nevil will do the holding on special teams, while Best can handle punting and kickoffs.
As the season nears on Friday night, Williamson wants a solid start. Rivals Crawford County and Corydon Central are the first two weeks on the slate.
‘We have to have a better start than we had last year. I like our guys,’ Williamson said. ‘We got off to a bad start last year, but no one pitched it in. We fought through adversity. This team has that same characteristics. It’s preached to them that we will see adversity and respond.’
Opponents can expect the same physical brand of football.
‘Every year it’s the same. We want to be extremely physical. We will fight through adversity and not give up or roll over regardless of the score or injuries,’ Williamson said. ‘We will fight. We want to be a team that every team on our schedule doesn’t want to play. We also want to be extremely disciplined.’
The Cougars host Crawford County (2-7 last season) Friday at 7 p.m.