Northern Nash coach Randy Raper does not mince words when talking about his football team.
When he became the Knights’ coach before last season, he talked about wanting to build a winning culture at Northern Nash. In the nine years prior to Raper’s arrival, Northern Nash had made the playoffs twice and had just as many winless seasons. Last season was the foundation for the new culture Raper is trying to breed, but the onus falls on the players to change their ways.
“It’s not me building a culture, it’s these kids wanting to build a different culture for themselves,” Raper said. “A lot of these older guys are trying to get there, and the younger guys are following suit. We’ve made a lot of strides in that direction.”
After last season’s four-win campaign, the team had a series of meetings, and it was in those discussions that the squad committed to buying into Raper’s philosophy. The practices became faster, there was less goofing off during drills and the players hit the weight room during the offseason.
The result – a tighter knit bunch that senior quarterback Jacob Green called a “family.”
“This year, we’ve bonded,” Green said. “Everybody gets along really well. We had some people that wanted to shine out by themselves, and this year it’s going to be more of a team effort.
“We’re going to be a lot more productive this year than we were last year.”
Green is back under center for an offense that is mostly the same as last season with the exception of the receivers. With Green trying to break in new receivers, the Knights will rely heavily on their talented backfield to spark the offense.
There is a great mix of speed and power backs at Raper’s disposal with senior fullback Clashawn Baker, primarily a blocker, but more than capable of picking up three or four yards when called upon, and senior Travon Clarke providing the flash with his self-reported 4.5 speed.
Although Baker, Clarke and junior Quon Whitaker will be the main backs, the most intriguing option might be Reggie Faison. The big sophomore was tough to bring down during the Nash County Jamboree last week, fighting his way for extra yards and even showcasing a couple of quick moves to break tackles.
The Knights’ biggest challenge will be on defense where they need to replace last year’s Telegram All-Area Defensive Player of the Year, Kendrick Richardson, on the defensive line. The defensive line looked strong during the scrimmages last week, but it was evident it lacked the star power Richardson provided.
One of the lineman trying to replace Richardson is senior Jwan Withers. He said the defense is not very different with Richardson, but acknowledged it will be more of a team effort this season.
Raper said the only way to replace a player of Richardson’s caliber is for the defensive line to remain poised and work hard, attributes that are directly in a player’s control.
“We’ve got to be better disciplined everywhere on the defense,” Raper said. “We lost some really good players [from] last year, but you can compensate for loss of good players with discipline and effort. Effort don’t cost a thing.”
The anchor of the defense will likely be junior cornerback Namir Davis, an All-Area selection last year. Davis’ 5-foot-8, 140-pound frame aside, he can pack a punch when he hits the opposition. The junior was collecting tackles all over the field during the Nash County Jamboree and was great in coverage as well during his limited reps. Raper called him a gifted athlete who understands the game and doesn’t try to do too much.
Davis said he has worked this offseason on his coverage skills and he expects the defense will be just as good despite losing Richardson and a few other key contributors.
“We’ve got some good defensive ends back,” Davis said. “Kendrick was a big help last year, we miss him, but we’re working hard and the defensive ends are doing their job.
“We didn’t have as much depth last year as we’ve got this year.”
The players are confident that all of their hard work will pay off with a return to the playoffs. However, Raper will wait until Northern Nash lines up Friday night against Wendell Corinth-Holders in the season opener to gauge whether his team has fully bought into his approach.
“The pudding in the cake is going to be how we respond Friday night,” Raper said. “That’s going to be what defines us. Are we going to fight for four quarters or are we going to fight early and lay down like they always have?
“We plan on fighting.”