Tigerville, S.C. – North Greenville Football team enters the 2016 season with high expectations, returning 16-starters including several players at key positions.
Coach Jeff Farrington is entering his fourth year leading the program, hoping to build on last year’s success which saw the Crusaders rack up seven wins compared to just three losses. The Crusaders will look to earn a playoff berth for just the second time in school history after a near miss in 2015.
North Greenville’s defense held opponents to 24-points per game last season, six points under the national average. The 2016 version of the “Black Swarm” boasts nine returners, including the team’s two top tacklers, Sam Houston and Tony Godbolt. Houston returns to his spot at middle linebacker while Godbolt will anchor the NGU secondary.
North Grenville’s secondary was the heart of the defense last season, holding teams to just 171 passing yards per game. The Crusaders ranked 23rd in all of Division-II football, giving merit to the self-proclaimed “Legion of Doom”. Steadied by Godbolt and fellow senior Nigel Gay, the cornerbacks and safeties look to be one of the strengths of the NGU defense once more.
The Crusader defense was ranked 43rd in the country last season in turnovers, picking off 14 total passes with 35-breakups and 49-deflections. NGU’s pass defenders were also relied on to help stop the run, recording seven tackles for a loss last season. Tony Godbolt, who was second on the entire team in tackles, leads this season’s returners with four tackles for loss. Godbolt recorded 62 total tackles last season, while Gay was third among returners with 51.
Coach Farrington and his defensive staff will lean on more experience in the linebacking corps. The group, led by previously mentioned Sam Houston returns over 60-games of experience. Houston and Quan Weeks are both four-year starters for the Crusaders while Eddie Studyvance returns for his sophomore campaign, having seen action in nine games in 2015.
Middle linebacker Sam Houston led the Crusaders last season with 82-total tackles. The defensive signal caller registered 29-solo and 53 assisted stops last season and recorded a sack. Houston also aided NGU’s pass defense with two break-ups and two deflections. Weeks and Studyvance add more strength to the position, having turned in solid seasons for the Crusaders during the 2015 campaign.
Weeks had 27 stops last season and recovered a fumble while Studyvance had 21 takedowns. Weeks and Houston led the NGU linebackers with 4.5 tackles for a loss with one sack each while Studyvance added 2.5 backfield stops. Studyvance also picked off a pass and recovered a fumble for the Crusaders.
The Crusaders also return a wealth of experience along the defensive front with more than 90-games of experience across five players. Among the returners is senior Anthony Blair who led the NGU trenchman with 41 tackles including 5.5 tackles for a loss. Blair has played in 21-games in the previous three-years for NGU and will look to sure up the NGU run-defense this season.
Shaquan Burney returns as the team’s leader in sacks having taken down opponent’s passers 4.5 times. Burney also led the defense with 10.5 total tackles for loss. Caleb Adkins also returns for his final season in red and black having turned in his best year so far in 2015. The senior recorded 21-tackles including 3.5 for a loss and a sack. Seth Laughter and Martez Abrams will add depth to the defensive line, combining for 45-tackles and a sack.
North Greenville’s offense will also rely on a steady dose of veteran presence this season, much like the defense. Joe Pizzo’s group returns seven starters from the 2016 season including four across the offensive front. Ashton Heard and Mason Sanders return for their junior campaigns while true sophomore Demajiay Rooks ads to the NGU passing attack.
The NGU coaching staff is however looking to fill the void at quarterback for the first time in four years, following the graduation of four-year starter and NCCAA All-American Nelson Hughes. The departure of Hughes, who is now working with the team in a coaching roll, gives way to some new faces looking to make their own mark on the North Greenville program.
First in line to fill the throne is redshirt sophomore Will Hunter, from Lexington, South Carolina. Hunter threw for over 5,000 yards in high school with 51 passing touchdowns to just 12-interceptions. The dual threat quarterback also rushed for 410-yards on 108 carries.
Mike Calabro enters the 2016 season as the only signal caller on the roster who has seen any game experience. Through his two years in Tigerville, the Florida Atlantic transfer has played in four games, tossing 11-completions for 88-yards and a touchdown. He’s also seen some success rushing the ball with 110-yards on 12-carries. Local product Collin Sneed from Hillcrest High School is also an option for the Crusaders. In his final season with the Rams, Sneed tossed the rock for 2,585-yards and 23-touchdowns, numbers well above the national average for high school quarterbacks.
Stacked behind the NGU quarterbacks is a well-proven, highly powerful stable of running backs, led by junior Ashton Heard. The junior from Abbeville led the Crusaders in rushing with 1,136 yards and seven touchdowns. Heard was the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Crusaders since the 2007 season, racking up four games with at least 100-yards on the ground. His biggest output of the season came against Tusculum College when he posted a career high 312-yards to go along with two touchdowns.
Heard is not the only battle tested back for the Crusaders. Simeon Byrd and Tristan Jackson add two more heads to the rushing attack, and a combined 36-games of experience. Byrd has rushed for 1,057-yards in his first three years in Tigerville with 14-touchdowns. Jackson adds a power-element to NGU’s ground game, playing in 10-games his freshman season, racking up five touchdowns and 388-yards. Jackson fought off injuries in 2015 but returns to full strength heading into the 2016 campaign. The Crusaders could also get a boost from Tracy Scott, a youngster from Carolina High School. Scott rushed for 1,078 yards during his senior campaign and 15-touchdowns.
Mason Sanders returns for his junior campaign to anchor the North Greenville wide outs. The 6-6, 230 pounder proved to be a red-zone menace for teams last season, finishing with 13 receiving touchdowns, ranking him 11th among all receivers last season. Sanders proved to be one of Nelson Hughes’ most reliable targets last season, catching 42-balls for 588-yards.
Robbie Brown brings more experience to NGU’s pass catchers, returning to the field after playing in just eight games in 2015 due to injury. Brown was NGU’s leading receiver in 2014, catching 80-passes for 1,166-yards and eight touchdowns. Brown caught 34-passes for 438-yards last season, finding pay dirt four times. Ashton Heard added another dimension to the NGU passing attack with 16-catches for 262-yards and a touchdown while Demajiay Rooks caught 16-targes, two of which went for a touchdown.
Perhaps the most important part of any offense is the front five, a position in which North Greenville returns four of its five starters from last season, led by center Micheal Thomas, a 2nd team NCCAA All-American selection from a year ago. Thomas has played in 21-games in two seasons for NGU, and led the Crusaders with 37-knockdowns last season. Casey Stewart was also one of NGU’s best performers last season, powering an NGU run game that averaged 208 yards per game. Stewart registered 35-knockdowns last season to rank him second among all offensive lineman.
Caleb Harris and Cam Stepp also return to anchor the NGU front. Harris played in nine games last season and was responsible for 13-knockdowns while Stepp played in six contests and had nine-knockdowns. The Crusaders will also rely on senior Dillon Alford who has played in 29-games over his career at NGU. The Georgetown native compiled 13-knockdowns last season after playing in six games.