Tigerville, S.C. - North Greenville's football team wrapped up its annual spring slate of practices on February 29th with one last practice on Monday afternoon in Younts Stadium.
North Greenville finished the 2015 season with an admirable 8-3 record but ultimately fell short of the team's biggest goal. "I thought our 2015 team showed improvement throughout the season," remarked head football coach Jeff Farrington. "We came up short on our goal of qualifying for the D-II playoffs, however, we were not short on effort."
The Crusaders put their focus on competition on both sides of the ball this spring, as Coach Farrington and his staff wanted to develop depth on both sides of the ball while also putting a large emphasis on fundamentals.
NGU's passing game next season will rest on the shoulders of a new starter following the graduation of four-year starter, and All-American Nelson Hughes. The battle for Hughes' replacement will last well into pre-season camp, but two front-runners have emerged.
Mike Calabro and Will Hunter will fight it out in the coming months to determine who will call the signals for the Crusaders in 2016. "Both guys have improved," remarked Farrington. "Mike is healthy again and Will has a better understanding of the offense." Neither of the two has much game experience. Calabro, a junior, has played in four games in his three years at NGU while Hunter, a redshirt freshman has just three games under his belt.
Whichever player wins the job at quarterback will have a plethora of options to throw to. It's no secret that Mason Sanders was NGU's biggest receiving threat last season, but several other names have surfaced. Javon Smith is one of those names. Smith caught 12-passes for 115 yards last season and was one of the leaders in the receiving corps coming out of spring drills. Demajiay Rooks, Pedro Manigault, and Shikee Brooks are also names to keep an eye on.
Another position with some question marks is the tight-end spot. The departure of Ricki DeLos Santos left an opportunity for someone, and Devon Turman and Bobby Foos look to take advantage. Turman and Foos are both Freshman who caught the eye of the coaching staff this spring with a solid showing. Foos could pull double-duty for the Crusaders next season should he remain the team's starting punter.
Ashton Heard became a household name to NGU fans last season, and nothing much has changed there. What has changed is the depth at running back. Heard along with Simeon Byrd could be a solid 1-2 punch for NGU's offense this season while Tristan Jackson adds a dose of power to go along with their speed. Shakeem Wharton and redshirt freshman Tracy Scott could also see quality playing time this season.
NGU's offensive line was a point of strength last season and looks to continue that trend. The Crusaders return four starters to the line this season, including Micheal Thomas, Casey Stewart, and Caleb Harris. Cam Stepp and Dillon Alford continue to show why they are solid options at the right tackle spot while Gage Smith is also making a name for himself.
North Greenville's defense will be one of the most experienced units in the country last season. The Crusaders return nine of 11 starters from last season including several key contributors.
The Crusaders return every starter from the defensive line. Anthony Blair and Shaquan Burney anchor a unit that helped NGU to its best record since 2011. Freshman Dezmond Williams opened some eyes with a solid spring workout, while Martez Abrams and Rashad Miller will add quality depth.
NGU's line-backing corps will be led by now senior Sam Houston who was the team's leading tackler last year, even after missing one game due to injury. Houston Totaled 82 total tackles from his middle line-backer spot, and also played a role in the NGU pass defense with two break-ups and two deflections.
Also in the mix at middle linebacker is Quan Weeks who turned in a solid effort during spring drills. Freshman Brandon Burger and Gabe Greshman are also expected to add strength and depth to the position.
One area of focus during the spring and on into training camp will be outside linebacker. The departure of Taylor Anderson and Darius Custard will put some new faces on the playing field this season. One of the names in the mix is Daulton Pilgrim. Pilgrim has been at for a year but sat out 2015 due to a knee injury.
Randy Brown and former inside backer Eddie Studyvance will hold down the bandit spot vacated by Custard. The outside line backing spots were one of the NGU's defensive cornerstones last season, combining for 96 total tackles, eight breakups and nine deflections in the passing game, 3.5 quarterback sacks. Taylor Anderson was also one of seven NGU players with an interception.
Pass defense was a spot of strength for North Greenville's defense, and if spring practice was any indication, it should be in 2016 as well. All four starters from last season will return to the backfield, giving NGU one of the most experienced secondaries in all of college football.
The group affectionately called "The Legion of Doom" welcomes back Tony Godbolt, KJ McDonald, Rochar Witherspoon, and Nigel Gay, a group of backs that totaled seven interceptions last season while holding opponents to just 171-yards per game passing. Opposing quarterbacks had a tough go against NGU's secondary, completing just 58.1 percent of their passes and just 11-touchdowns.
NGU also has some guys that could add some quality depth, as Travis Beatty and Rod McCray add some experienced backups. Freshman safety Matthew Thomas also emerged this spring as a solid back-up at safety.
"We have a very challenging scheduled coming up this year and we expect our team to give all its got each and everyday," says Farrington. "We look forward to how our team handles the leadership opportunities as the calendar moves towards September 1st against West Alabama."