High School Football

Vikings use spring to search for leaders, depth

by Chris Goltermann

Flowers aren’t the only things in bloom in April and May. More often than not, it’s a chance to see how quickly high school football players have sprouted since both the fall season and winter workouts.

At Northgate, it didn’t take long to notice some of the growth in the offseason.

Junior quarterback Tyler Rowland entered spring practice with an added 30 pounds of muscle while freshman running back Ton Evans filled his new No. 9 jersey with the same fit of its former occupant, senior Torres Johnson.

Yet Vikings head coach Tommy Walburn knows there’s work still left to do heading into the 2014 season for what expects to be a young and somewhat inexperienced team following the loss of at least 25 seniors to graduation.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys who are going to have to step up and help us,” Walburn said of a group of 84 players that have come out for the 10-day conditioning period. “We use this as a culmination of our offseason program before we get started in the summer. That’s the excitement of coaching high school football. You lose leaders every year.

But somebody has to fill in. It’s like that old country song, ‘Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?’”

The process is cyclical, of course. With over 100 days still left until the season opener at home against Shaw, the first of two non-region games in a new Region 4-AAAAA alignment for 2014, there’s still plenty of time for improvement.

Walburn said the team will go under the lights at Henry Seldon Field around 7 p.m. for a controlled scrimmage without splitting into teams. The last six or seven days — considering the Vikings managed to get in about an hour-and-a-half of practice on Wednesday prior to two inches worth of rain — have provided a good glimpse of the groundwork left.

On offense, Northgate will have to find a way to replace nearly 1,600 yards rushing produced by seniors Benton Washington (Air Force) and T.J. Womack. Rowland, who battled with fellow junior Bo Zachary in the early parts of the season, finished with 466 yards in his first year as a starter behind center. Eighth-grade quarterback Kyle McLaren, who led Madras to a CCMSAL championship, is also practicing with the team this spring.

Rising senior Kevin Teasley and the 170-pound Evans — who averaged 11.1 yards on 37 carries — join another current freshman Kyle Cater, who was moved up from the JV squad late in the year, as the leading candidates in the Vikings three-back wing-T formation.

“I think it’s gone well. We’ll have a very inexperienced team this year,” Walburn said. “But it amazes you how much from one year to the next a player will mature and improve. It doesn’t have to be a senior. It could be a guy from ninth to tenth grade. If we’re going to have a good football team, we’re going to have to have some that played on the ninth grade team step up and help us.”

Sophomore James Skalski took the step last fall, finishing second to senior linebacker Ryan Fagerstrom with 112 tackles. The 6-1, 223-pound linebacker, who already gained interest from Louisville, Marshall, North Carolina and Wake Forest, has become as much an asset on special teams as a punter and kicker.

Skalski and Jackson Dorman, who had 42 tackles, are the only returners on defense among Northgate’s top-seven tacklers a year ago.

“We’ve had so many new faces. Our senior class is not that big. But we’ve got a huge junior class and a huge, HUGE sophomore class.,” Walburn said. “I think it’s 35 juniors and 39 sophomores for next year.”

A logjam of new faces has allowed the Viking staff to begin evaluating players at different positions, something that Walburn’s athletes have been receptive to so far.

“What I’ve really pleased with is we’ve moved them around to different positions. A lot of times you find a kid who’s played a position since pee-wee and middle school and they’re resistant to that even though they might not tell you. We’ve moved them around and they’ve had a good attitude about it.”

Depth continues to be a key for the Class AAAAA program, which went 4-6 and missed the state playoffs last season. Once again, teams in 4-AAAAA will be tasked with finishing among the top-four of a subdivided region of 13 schools.

“The thing we’ve struggled with, even in our championship season [in 2011] was depth. We’ve had absolutely no depth,” Walburn said. “We’re trying to sell the kids that we’re only going to start 22 guys, but we can play as many people as can get ready to play in a varsity game.”

Northgate’s subregion loses two of last year’s state playoff teams in Whitewater and eventual state-champion Creekside, both of which dropped to Class AAAA. But it gains four schools from Clayton (Morrow, Mundy’s Mill, Drew and Forest Park) to go with returning rivals McIntosh and Starr’s Mill from Fayette.

The B-subregion is comprised of six Henry County schools — Woodland, Ola, Union Grove, Dutchtown, Stockbridge and Luella. Teams will play a full subregion schedule and one crossover game. The regular season again concludes with a play-in game where the top-four finishers in each division with matchup in alternating seeds (No. 1 vs. No. 4; No. 2 vs. No. 3) to determine the four state playoff berths from 4-AAAAA.

“I like our schedule. I’m still not a fan of the subdivided regions, but I’m not going to complain about it anymore,” Walburn said. “It’s going to be exciting to play Shaw the first game. When I was head coach at Troup, they were a thorn in my side.”

Northgate and Troup will also swap home-and-home non-region games, with Walburn and defensive coordinator Bubba Jeter — another former Tigers head coach — taking on a program led by former colleague Lynn Kendall.

“I hired [him] and there’s four others on that staff that I coached,” Walburn said. “So that’s going to be exciting. They’re both good trips. I always like to switch it up a bit and play different people. We’ve still got a ways to go. Right now, I’m more concerned about us than anybody else.”

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