Asked whether he knows ahead of each drive which position he’ll be playing, Northwestern senior Dupree Hart deferred to his nearby coach, Kyle Richardson.
“No, he does not know which position he is playing on each drive because I don’t know which position he is playing on each play,” Richardson stressed.
After four games, Northwestern is still in a state of offensive flux. Their opponents at District Three Stadium Friday, rivals South Pointe, are mired in the same transition. Having Hart on the field as a four-year starter with game-breaking plays busting out of his cleats gives the Trojans a huge advantage in the two teams’ first non-region meeting since 2011.
“Hart, he’s a tough one,” said South Pointe coach Strait Herron. “Just like last week, we saw Vance’s quarterback. We told our guys ‘if he gets lose, he’s tough,’ and that’s the same thing with Hart. We’ve got to try and keep him contained one way or another.”
Hart has done it all for the Trojans, helping them back to .500 with a wins over Irmo and Greenwood the last two weeks after losing the season’s first two games to Byrnes and Charlotte Catholic.
The 5-foot-7 whirlwind averages 207 total yards per game and has topped 300 in each of the last two games. In last Saturday’s win over Greenwood he rushed for 160 yards and three scores, completed 11 of 13 passes for 102 yards and caught five passes for 43 yards and another touchdown when Harper Woods was inserted at QB.
South Pointe - any school - could do with a Dupree-type. The Stallions won their first two games before consecutive losses to York and Vance (N.C.). In the defeats, Herron’s crew scored just 14 combined points, and while the competition was stout, it’s not a trend he wants to see persist.
One cardinal issue is, “We’re still trying to figure out what’s the best combination of guys to put in there,” Herron said Thursday.
Both South Pointe and Northwestern entered 2014 with major offensive pieces to replace. Players have been shuttled around in different positions on both sides throughout the first four games, and it’s certain these teams will look differently in November.
Junior Julian Shockley has been one of the most flexible options for Northwestern. When Hart has been under center Northwestern hasn’t used him as a punt returner, so Shockley slotted in there and has run a punt back for a touchdown each of the past two weeks.
Considering all options after an 0-2 start, Richardson saw fully-grown sophomore running back Jerry Howard standing on the sideline, getting about five snaps per game. He threw Howard into the backfield against Irmo and shifted Shockley to receiver to get all of the best players on the field in Northwestern’s typical one-back set. Howard had three carries for a single yard in the first two contests of ‘14, but has a combined 18 carries for 155 yards and a touchdown the last two weeks. Shockley has caught 11 passes for 126 yards and two scores, impressive considering his almost non-existent experience at the position prior to September.
“It’s taking a long time to get the chemistry back where we had it last year,” said Hart. “It’s coming along pretty good these last two weeks.”
Those same shifts and tweaks are going on at South Pointe. Under first-year offensive coordinator Jason McManus, the Stallions are trying to build a physical Air Raid offense, designed to stretch and smash.
“We’ve actually run the ball pretty consistently,” said McManus, who joined from Itawamba Community College (Miss.) in the offseason. “We’ve just had so many moving parts at quarterback and receiver that we’ve not been able to find any continuity in the passing game. But we’re going to continue to be physical with a no-huddle tempo.”
Quarterbacks Zaylin Burris and Greg Ruff have only thrown for 100-plus yards in one game - Ruff’s performance in the win over Rock Hill - and are completing just 47 percent of their passes the last two weeks. First down has been the pitfall for South Pointe; dropped passes or penalties have put the Stallions in holes they couldn’t escape against tough foes like York and Vance.
“Our goal is to try and stay ahead of the chains and get a third-and-short where we can still run the ball or throw a high percentage pass,” said McManus. “But we were definitely behind the chains last week.”
Burris was injured during a scrimmage against Providence in August. He didn’t play in the season-opener against New Covenant, and then was knocked out of the Rock Hill game with a head injury.
“That just put a little bind on us and we’re trying to get some consistency on that side of the ball now,” said Herron.
McManus has been spoiled with options at receiver - 13 different players have caught passes so far - and in the backfield, but none of the guys stepping up have elbowed their competition out of the way. Walking across the school’s parking lot before a workout this summer, Herron told McManus “the problem this year is we might have too many skilled athletes.”
With Anthony Johnson graduated and playing well in windswept Kansas junior college football, South Pointe needs an offensive play-maker to emerge, an offensive focal point á la Hart. Having been held below 100 total yards in each of this three games against the Stallions, expect a big effort from the little No. 14 Friday night.
“It’s always exciting to play South Pointe, but this time’s the last time so it means a little bit more than it has in the past,” said Hart. “I think it’ll be fun.”