Tigerville, S.C. – North Greenville football will kickoff the 2017 pre-season in just over a week as the team looks to make another trip to the NCAA playoffs. Here are some of the key storylines heading into the season.
The Crusaders are set at the signal caller spot as Will Hunter returns for his second season under center. Hunter threw for over 3,000 yards in 2016 with 23-touchdowns and eight interceptions. He had just four INT’s heading into the final game against North Alabama.
Donny Baker, a fellow Lexington High School Wildcat will hold down the backup role while new comers Kirk Rygol and Bryce Fields will also compete for playing time.
First-year offensive line coach Will Shuler has plenty to work with this season as his group returns four of its five 2016 starters. The hogs are led by senior center Casey Stewart and Micheal Thomas, which helped lead an offense that has produced back-to-back 1,000-yard rushers.
NGU’s front five also return their starting left tackle, Caleb Harris who was one of two All-Americans last season for the Crusaders and the only All-American on offense.
North Greenville’s offense totaled 5,682 yards last season with over 2,000 of that coming on the ground. The three-headed monster responsible for the ground production returns, led by Tracy Scott who posted 1,190 yards and 15-touchdowns on the ground. Scott was also a home run hitter, with several touchdowns over 40-yards including a long of 65.
Depth at the tailback spot is not an issue as former 1,000-yard rusher Ashton Heard returns for his senior campaign while bruiser Tristan Jackson adds a power element to the NGU ground game.
Offensive coordinator Joe Pizzo has weapons all over the field, a trend that doesn’t stop with the wide receivers and tight ends. Will Hunter returns four receivers with over 400-yards including Javon Smith who led the team with 776 yards and nine touchdowns. Mason Sanders also returns for his final year in Tigerville while the return Robbie Brown, the Victory Bowl MVP from 2014 adds more depth to an already dangerous receiving corps.
At tight end, Bobby Foos is back with Devon Turman and Jordan Helms adding quality depth to the position. Foos doubles as NGU’s starting punter and is a master at flipping field position.
But don’t tell that to NGU’s place kicker Matt Gravely, who was one of the nation’s most accurate in 2016. Gravely was 15 of 21 and was a perfect 54 of 54 on PAT’s. More impressive, the true sophomore was 5 of 8 from 40+ yards with a long of 47, a kick that tied his brother Justin’s career mark.
NGU’s defense has some holes to fill, starting with the defensive front seven. Desmond Williams and nose Seth Laughter return to anchor the unit, but coordinator Greg Harris will be working with several new faces, especially across the front. Chauncey Haney, a familiar face on the team will be one of those faces, moving from outside linebacker to defensive end.
Replacing a four-year starter is never easy, that’s one of the tasks that NGU’s defensive staff is faced with at the ILB spot. Brandon Burger, Jeremy Hunt, and Jeremiah Ferguson will be tasked with filling the void left by the departure of middle linebacker Sam Houston, who returns this season as a graduate assistant. Eddie Martin and Caleb Bynum will also fight for playing time.
The OLB’s could be a source of strength for NGU’s defense this season as it returns several guys who saw quality playing time last season. Eddie Studyvance and Randy Brown are back while Hunter Campbell and Matthew Thomas, the brother of offensive lineman Micheal Thomas add more depth and experience to NGU’s 3-4 defensive scheme.
An area that will be looking for new playmakers as the team opens up fall camp is the defensive backfield. The Crusaders lost a few starters due to graduation, but that doesn’t mean there is a lack of experience. Senior Travis Beatty will lead the group. He will be flanked by Azende Dixon. Defensive coordinator Greg Harris will look to some youngsters to help as well with Rodney Landrum and redshirt freshman Johnny Worthy looking to step up and fill a void.
The Crusaders will open camp next week with the 2017 season opener scheduled for August 31st at 7 pm.