The team lost the bulk of its starters on defense, with many of them signing with NCAA Division I programs.
As the Tigers began the new season, half of the starters on defense were sophomores.
There figured to be some growing pains, and there have been, starting with a 29-0 loss to Callaway in the season opener.
Now, with two weeks remaining in the regular season, it looks like that young defense has grown up.
The Tigers (5-3 overall) are tied for second in Region 6-AAA with a 3-1 record, and they’re coming off their best performance of the season in a 26-7 win over Shaw.
A Shaw offense that has been clicking of late was all but shut down.
“Most places these guys would be playing junior varsity football,” Troup head coach Charles Flowers said. “Here they are starting and they are doing a great job for us. We still are making a lot of young mistakes, but they have come along during this season.”
Since the Tigers returned from an off-week after a tough loss to Carrollton, they’ve given up a combined 14 points to Central-Carroll and Shaw.
First-year starters such as linebackers Cortez Leonard and Zackquinarious Washington, defensive back Ricky Frazier, defensive lineman Maurice Swain and Quon Shealy – all sophomores – have stepped up to make big plays for the team.
Linebacker Reuben Foster, who is already receiving plenty of attention from colleges because of his dominant play the past two seasons, is another sophomore starter, although he was a starter a year ago.
Other young players like defensive back Lemonta Truitt have also contributed.
While many of the key contributors are young players, there are some veterans, including senior defensive linemen Deonte Barsh and Quay Bray, as well as juniors Justin Shaw and Peyton Evans.
Senior linebacker Justin Woodall also brought some experience to the field.
Still, with so many inexperienced starters, the defense “took some lumps early and we still may take some more,” Flowers said. “The guys may be young but we just decided that we were going to stick with them. They have gotten better as the season has gone on.”
The improvement is not lost on the players either, as Swain noted.
“It was tough at first, but we just kept working hard,”said Swain, a big defensive lineman who helped cave things in against Shaw a week ago. “That was our motto coming out each day to practice every week, was to just get better.”
George Brewer, who helps coach the defense alongside Flowers and linebackers coach Calvin Arnold, said that some of that improvement with the defense is due to a built in chemistry with the team that was planted on the fields of recreation league and middle school football and harvested in the Tigers summer weight-training program.
“The biggest thing is the offseason program, lifting weights, and getting to know each other better,” said Brewer, the defensive coordinator a year ago under former head coach Bubba Jeter. “All summer long the guys got to know one another better, and started to gel.
“A lot of those guys played rec ball together and they know each other. That is a good thing for a team, so they feel like brothers more than teammates. When you have a history with someone already, it makes it easier to come together as a group.”
That comrade rie, Swain said, helps the players realize they “can trust one another.”
“We already have a team mentality built in from growing up together and playing,” he said. “We know each other and we know what to expect.”
Swain believes that familiarity the players have with each other helps when someone makes a mistake in coverage or along the line.
“It makes it easier to call out each other when we make mistakes,” Swain said. “From playing together we know what to expect out of your teammates, and we know what they are capable of, so when I’m not doing something right, or someone else on the defense isn’t in the right spot we always call each other out. It makes it easier than calling out a stranger.”
The Tiger defensive unit is getting better, and Flowers credits that to the hard work that the unit has put in over the season.
“Cortez Leonard, Ricky Frazier, Quon Shealy, those guys have really stepped up for us,” he said. “You expect Reuben Foster to make plays for you. All of those guys have stepped up and have grown during this season and a great job for us.”
Flowers said that the improvement the defense has made is easy to see.
“You can go back and see that the guys are making those tackles that they missed earlier in the season,” Flowers said. “They are getting in position a lot better, where earlier they were out of position a lot of the time, even if they don’t make the tackle. They are still making a lot of the young mistakes, but they are coming along fine and getting better with each game.”
Frazier said that as the team moves forward from this season and into the next, that good things are to come.
“We have gotten better as the season went along,” said Frazier, who had an interception and returned a fumble for a touchdown during a victory over Central-Carroll. “I think that we are going to continue to get better and better the more playing time that we get and the more reps we get in practice.”
Brewer said that a lot of the unit’s improvement has been due to the players’ stronger grasp of the fundamentals.
“The main thing is that we have caught on fundamental wise,” Brewer said. “Looking at the team as a whole fundamental wise we have picked up the pace and we have become more fundamental with each game. The biggest change that I have seen in the guys is them just playing together, knowing their assignments and where they need to be.”
Added Swain: “We’re young, but we are getting better. Our defensive backs especially are getting better at recognizing what the offense is doing. Overall I think that we are getting better as a unit in just getting to where we need to be.”
Frazier agrees with that.
“Everything is coming together well,” Frazier said. “We are doing good on defense, but I think that we can do better. We have a lot of guys on our side that coming into the season hadn’t seen a lot of playing time so we had some bumps to get over.”
Frazier added that as a defensive back, the guys have been working on and getting better at recognizing what an offense could be throwing at them.
“Just as defensive backs we have been working a lot on reading what the offense is doing,” Frazier said.
“We have been working on personnel groupings a lot, and I think that is one of the things that the guys are getting better are recognizing,” Brewer added. “For instance they are getting better at learning 21 personnel (pro-style) offenses, and know that when they line up. They know pretty much that the other team will have two wide receivers in a game. They are getting back to being familiar with that, along with picking up blocks, and when to follow the man in motion.”
With so many young, talented players, Flower is eager to see what this defense can accomplish.
“We are excited about it, but they are still making mistakes that you hope they wouldn’t make,” Flowers said. “We have to constantly tell ourselves that for a lot of these guys it is there first time on the field, except being on special teams. Overall we are pretty excited about the direction we are headed.”
Swain feels the future is bright for the defense.
“I see us better in the future,” Swain said. “Most of the other teams that we face have juniors and seniors, maybe a couple of sophomores, so we will have at least a year of game experience on them. I think that we will really come together and be a force in the future.”