After dismissing his team at the conclusion of Wednesday evening’s practice, Nation Ford coach Michael Allen asked his seniors to stay behind for a moment.
A group of 14 players took a knee in front of the coach. With crosstown rival Fort Mill coming to visit Friday night, Allen’s address was simple.
“This is our last time playing our rival,” said senior Ervin Lassiter. “Give it the best you’ve got.”
The Falcons (2-4, 0-1 in Region 3-4A) beat Fort Mill (5-2, 1-1) in last season’s matchup 35-28, creating four turnovers in their first win in the crosstown series. If the Falcons are to win again, their defense, with just two starters back from last season, will have to make an impact.
“We’ve worked hard the last two weeks; I think we’ve improved on that side of the ball,” said Allen, whose team is coming off a bye week. “The kids are in a position where they want to perform better. They understand it; they understand where we are. They read the scoreboard, that know what we’re giving up and they know it’s an issue. So I think they’ll come together and they’ll get better.”
The Falcons are allowing 47.6 points per game (second most in 4A), a statistic partially offset by the offense averaging 33.3 points. Nation Ford has a number of first-time starters on a defense that has created only seven turnovers in six games.
Alex Stennett, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound sophomore safety, is the team’s leading tackler (44), while fellow 10th graders Halen Burgess and Corbin Tesimale have also seen extensive playing time at that position. Junior defensive linemen Charles Newton, Tay Sauls and Davelle Green have also contributed much more this year.
It needs to be made absolutely clear that effort isn’t the problem. Inexperience and youth are the issue, unavoidable factors that Allen and his coaching staff tried to mitigate by moving a number of offensive players into defensive positions during the offseason. Senior Ervin Lassiter moved to cornerback – he’s still playing some receiver – and fellow senior and former wideout Colt Taylor is playing exclusively on the defensive side of the ball this fall. Cornerback Colby Ridge is another converted receiver starting in the Falcons’ defensive secondary. It’s a credit to the position-changers that there has been no belly-aching.
“We’ve just got to step up and put people in the right positions so we can do what we do best,” said Lassiter. “We’re just trying to show some leadership on defense so these younger guys can step up too.”
In Region 3-4A, Falcons defenders are learning to fly in a stiff wind. The region’s talented and diverse teams offer a unique challenge each week for defensive coaches; Nation Ford’s own prolific offense is a perfect example.
Fort Mill’s scoring unit has been a Panzer tank this season, slowed only on two occasions: by terrible conditions and a sub-par performance against River Bluff, and by Clover’s suffocating ball control last week. The Yellow Jackets average 376 yards of offense and about 33 points, and their offense turns the screw on opposing defense through a gamut of decision-making.
Who’s got the ball? What’s the tackle doing? This guy’s going in motion, do I follow? For an inexperienced defense, it can be brain-melting.
“They got a lot going on,” said Allen. “It’s a lot to take in as a defensive player; you’ve got to be solid with your keys and then react. But Fort Mill’s offense has given everybody trouble. They’re extremely efficient and they do a terrific job coaching and getting those guys ready to play. They have a system and they stick with their system.”
This time last year, the Yellow Jackets were in a similar boat as their rivals. They were inexperienced and slogging through a tough region. A year later, with 17 combined starters back – including quarterback Rogan Wells who has come through last year’s trials as one of this season’s safest players with the football – they’re gunning for a top-three finish in the region. Nation Ford’s defense will come good too; how long it will take is the question.
“A lot of it’s experience and then we’ve moved some of the offense over to defense so we just have to mesh together,” said Grant Brewington, a senior linebacker. “I think we’re starting to get the hang of it, slowly but surely.”
Of course Friday’s game is a rivalry, but it’s crucial for another reason. As Allen pointed out, if the Falcons want to return to the postseason for a fourth straight year, they need to start winning some games.
“It’s time for our young’ns to step up,” he said. “They’re really not rookies any more.”
Nation Ford’s defense can’t bloom soon enough. There isn’t much time left for the group of 14 that stayed after to talk with their coach on Wednesday.
“About five more games,” Lassiter said with a grin.