Prep Football: Winless Northgate not ready to panicBy CHRIS GOLTERMANN
There were no helmets pointed toward the turf at Northgate High during Tuesday’s football practice, no apparent signs of panic. Even at 0-2, and taking on a little bit of water, the Vikings feel they’re headed in the right direction this season, even if the seas have been much rougher than a year ago.
But the road through this year’s schedule isn’t getting any easier this week at Henry Seldon Field.
But outside of its preseason scrimmage at Veterans, Northgate also hasn’t won since last beating North Clayton a year ago.
With not quite the same finality as the previous playoff meeting, Friday’s game does have plenty of ramifications for a pair of 0-2 lineups that have fallen victim to the early season schedule. A victory could go a long way toward renewed confidence while a loss could add to some of the frustration felt so far by both lineups trying hard to build on last year’s successes.
It won’t help Northgate that between its 2011 playoff win over North Clayton and losses this year to Riverdale (21-0) and Grady (33-29), the Eagles, in their second season under head coach Max Wiltz expect to be hungrier than ever for an elusive victory.
Back-to-back losses to Heritage-Conyers (9-7) and Griffin (35-6) have equally proven that this year’s Northgate football team still hasn’t been able to put together all the necessary pieces to win games like it did a year ago.
“We’re not throwing any towels in. The weather hasn’t even cooled off yet. The main thing is that we’ve got to get better,” Northgate head coach Tommy Walburn said. “We haven’t done anything to diminish state playoffs or winning a region championship. Everybody wants to win and we’re disappointed, cause we went in expecting to win both those ballgames. If we can hang in there mentally and our players can keep it all in perspective.”
Between departures to graduation and intangibles early in the season highlighted by the loss of a pair of running backs to injuries, the Vikings have found it a tough go so far against two lineups that are either state ranked, or on the cusp of being included in the top-10 of their respective classification.
“Regardless who we’ve played, we haven’t played very well,” Walburn admitted. “The thing with the Heritage game is we lost that game with five turnovers and a bunch of penalties. We lost the Griffin game cause we couldn’t get anything going on offense, especially the first half. Plus, the big play. When you play Griffin, that’s what they’re going to to do. they hit us on four big plays.”
While not of the same stature of Northgate’s first-two opponents, North Clayton returns much of the same talent from last year’s 7-4 playoff team, which lost two of its three regular season games to state-ranked Lovejoy and Region 3-AAAAAA preseason favorite Tri-Cities. The other came against a Jonesboro program that barely missed reaching the top-10 of this week’s Class AAAA poll.
The roads so far have been nearly identical. Much like the Vikings, mistakes by North Clayton loomed large in the loss to Riverdale with three mistakes and eight penalties playing a role. Seniors Ladrius Mathis, at tailback, and 6-3, 250-pound tight end Devin Lewis are just two targets Northgate defenders will have to keep an eye on in the Eagles’ wing-T attack.
Mathis rushed for 156 yards on 21 carries against Riverdale and then scored three touchdowns in the loss to Grady including one on a pass.
Equally, senior offensive linemen Jaquavious Walker (6-4, 270), Maurice McGill (6-1, 280) and Harold Smith (6-4, 270) expect to go head-to-head with the Vikings’ defensive front led by Division I commitments Sean Spencer (Vanderbilt) and DeAndre “Moose” Johnson (Georgia).
“They’re in the same boat we’re in,” Walburn said of North Clayton. “They probably have more people coming back than we have. They’ve got a good running back and the big tight end is back. They’re very athletic and they’ve played two very athletic teams. We’ll have to play better than we have played the last two ballgames to win the football game.”
To Northgate’s defense, it’s yet to field the lineup it envisioned in the preseason. So far, its best offensive weapon on a roster that included an entirely new backfield, a first-year starting quarterback and a revamped front line, has been converted lineman T.J. Womack.
The Viking junior’s 106 yards on 15 carries were among the few positives of a unit that has struggled to replace Times-Herald co-Offensive Players of the Year Alex Lakes and Payton Usher. It hasn’t helped that their intended successors — Benton Washington (broken arm) and Michael Willis (ankle sprain) — have barely made an appearance so far due to injuries.
Star cornerback/receiver Brandon Facyson, who has committed to Virginia Tech, has also yet to play at 100-percent in two games and was on the sidelines for the opener. Against Griffin, Facyson was double and triple-teamed by the Bears, making two catches for 18 yards and playing sporadically only on offense.
While refusing to making excuses for the early season struggles, Walburn equally understands why his team has only scored one touchdown in each of its first two games.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses, but we’ve had some monkey wrenches thrown into an already inexperienced offense,” he said. “So we had guys with our JV that we worked all summer long, and for these reasons, we don’t have them. We’re slowly, but surely getting people well.”
Womack’s emergence has been a pleasant surprise and the junior continued to showcase his downhill strength in Tuesday’s run-offense drills, plowing through gaps at times much like his uncle, Johnny Brown, did during his years at Morrow High according to Walburn.
“He runs just like him,” Walburn said of Womack. “He’s a good athlete. He’s quick and he’s big and he’s strong. We thought we needed to make some moves due to the injuries. So we put him back there. We probably should have had him back there, but we had some problems on the line.”
After scoring 48 rushing touchdowns last year behind Lakes and Usher, Northgate is still searching for its first of the 2012 season. North Clayton returns seven of last year’s defensive starters including senior linebacker Aaron Adwater.
“We feel like every day we’re getting better,” Walburn said.
On the field for much of last week’s loss, senior linebacker Connor Usher — also a slow starter due to injuries — posted 16 tackles to lead the Vikings.
Like Northgate, North Clayton is going through a transition of its own at quarterback after losing three-year starter Dennis Johnson to graduation. The Eagles opened the preseason with senior Jeremy Daniels, junior Quenterious Page and sophomore Isaac Thomas all battling for the starting job
Regardless, a third quality opponent to open the season provides another playoff-type atmosphere that could come in handy down the road according to the Vikings head coach.
“We want to win every game. We’re not happy,” Walburn said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to keep it all in perspective, especially in high school. There’s no BCS. I see a lot of merit in playing tough people on the schedule. I felt like we needed to kick it up a notch. You play a region schedule, you try to qualify for the playoffs. The thing is when you play a team like Griffin and Heritage, they expose what you need to work on. We’re going to face both of those types of teams in our subregion.”