Tigerville, SC – After a myriad of changes during the offseason, the North Greenville football program looks to build on their recent success. The Crusaders have compiled a 20-6 record over the past two seasons; including an 11-3 record and the school’s first ever trip to the NCAA Division II Playoffs in 2011.
“Our recent success translates into the offseason as much as it does during the season,” said first year head coach Carroll McCray. “We are trying to build on the success we have had and be better than we used to be. The guys know what it takes to win and how to work hard to prepare for the season.”
Quarterbacks: With the graduation of former Crusader Willy Korn, the offense is left looking for a new face under center. The position battle this offseason centers around freshman Nelson Hughes and sophomore Joey Carter, neither of which has seen substantial time on the field. However, both Hughes and Carter do possess strong arms and project more as pocket passers rather than the usual mobile quarterbacks Crusader fans are used to. The most experienced quarterback on the roster is junior Aaron Seigler who will be recovering from a shoulder injury suffered late last season.
Running Backs: Normally the running back position is where the Crusader offense shines and displays its strength. However, with just one running back returning from the 2011 season, a host of new faces will see time in the backfield. Freshman Darius Custard will finally see the field after a redshirt season on the sideline, while incoming freshmen Ashton Heard and Darius Paulk are expected to contribute right away. Fellow freshmen Trey Walker, Classe Thompson and Tyler Leath will battle for carries throughout the season. Junior Nick Lilly will transition from tight end to fullback in the new offense in order to provide size and an inside runner for the North Greenville rushing attack.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: The Crusaders return eight receivers from last season including starters Freddie Martino and Sean Wright. Martino, a junior, led the Crusaders with 66 receptions for 1, 007 yards and seven touchdowns, while the senior Wright hauled in a team-high 11 touchdowns among his 37 receptions for 612 yards. Slot receiver Harold Small returns for his senior season after catching 25 passes for 346 yards and five touchdowns. Fellow seniors Daniel Adderley, Taylor Malphrus and Troy Jones provide depth, while senior tight end Lawrence returns after starting 13 games in 2011. Senior Kamrie Connell makes the switch from receiver to tight end in order to provide more depth at the position and freshman receiver Thomas Weeks is also expected to have an immediate impact.
Offensive Line: North Greenville’s offense will find its leadership and strength among the offensive line as five upperclassmen return for McCray and his staff. Chancellor Hudson, a three-year starter, is back for his senior season to protect the quarterback’s blind side. Junior center Jacob Morris is also back to solidify the middle of the line, while senior Sterling Ward and juniors Ryan Thurn and Will Beacham provide depth and experience along the front line. Matt Rochester, who returns after a redshirt season on the sideline, has shown plenty of promise in the spring and summer and is projected to battle for a starting spot.
McCray on the offense: “We are going to have a young guy taking snaps for us under center so we want to surround him with guys who have talent and can teach him the ropes and the season progresses. We have solid linemen returning and almost all of our receiving corps as well. We will look to guys like Hudson and Morris to lead this offense. We also have skilled playmakers like Martino, Small, Malphrus and Jones, while Wright and Chastang give us options in the red zone.”
Defensive Line: The strength of the Crusader defense lies within the defensive line as all three starters possess a great deal of experience. Junior Zach Epting shifts from defensive end to nose tackle in the 3-4 defensive scheme after recording 45 tackles in 2011. Senior Stefan Bynoe and junior Michael Klein will start on opposite ends of the line. The two combined for 61 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season. Juniors Jonathan White and Eric Mitchell also return to provide depth along the line, while freshmen Brendon Miller and LeeShawn Cromedy will be counted on to make an impact in the trenches.
Linebackers: The second line of defense for North Greenville boasts the team’s most fearless defender in senior Johnathan Sharpe. In 2011, Sharpe ranked second on the team with 79 tackles, including a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Junior Braelen Meredith will return for his second season as a starter, while senior AJ Jones will look to become a full-time starter in the middle of the defense. Joining Jones in the middle will be sophomore Nick Rogers who will get his first glance at significant playing time after playing sparingly last season, while senior Nolan Grage will provide depth, experience and athleticism from the outside.
Secondary: Among the positions that took the greatest loss in experience is the Crusader secondary, which returns just one starter from a unit that allowed 187.3 passing yards per game a year ago. That lone returning starter is senior cornerback Isaiah Johnson, who recorded 44 tackles, 22 pass breakups and four interceptions as a junior. Slated to start opposite Johnson is sophomore Cejay Thomas who saw significant time as a special teams player last season. Both safety spots will see position battles throughout the summer and into the fall. At the strong safety position, junior Brandon Aldridge will have to hold off talented sophomore Taylor Anderson for the starting job. Last season Aldridge played in seven games totaling only six tackles and two pass breakups, while Anderson saw action in nine games, recording 16 tackles, two pass breakups and one interception. Two upperclassmen will vie for the starting free safety position as senior Darren Foster and junior Paul Scott continue to show improvement. The two have each spent their time as Crusaders as quality backups and special teams contributors .
McCray on the defense: “Last year’s team played a lot of guys on defense so we will have some playing experience in a lot of positions. Defensively, our strength is in our front seven where we have guys who have played a lot of snaps. We lost a lot in the secondary but we have quality guys to fill those spots. On defense we want to play with a high energy level all game, every game.”
One area of stability for the Crusaders will be special teams, as the team’s punter, punt returner and two kickers return. Junior punter Jacob Buckley returns after a 2011 season in which he totaled 51 punts, including 19 in the 20-yard line, for an average of 34.2 yards per punt. Johnson also returns as one of the most dangerous return men in the country. The senior has 46 career punt returns for an average of 18 yards per return and six career touchdowns, just one away from tying the NCAA record for punt return touchdowns in a career. Sophomore kickers Justin Gravely and Parker Langford are also back after successful freshmen campaigns. Last season, Gravely was 11-for-16 on field goal attempts and 66-for-71 on extra points. Langford handled the majority of the kickoff duties as he totaled 64 kickoffs, including three touchbacks, for an average of 58.5 yards per kick off.
“I have high expectations for this team and I expect our team to prepare for every game we play,” said McCray. “I see a lot of good players returning to provide leadership in every area. Coming off a season like we had in 2011 expectations have to be high in order to win and continue to improve.”
If the past is any sign of the future, the 2012 football season with be one for Crusader fans to cherish.