Smaller Knights Focus On Speed
With Veteran Backfield, TA Returns To Wing-T Roots
Except these Knights don’t expect to have a smashmouth reputation.
Senior center Ryan Fix is the only returning starter on a significantly smaller offensive line that TA will rely on to pave the way for a senior-laden backfield that includes 1,000-yard running back Shane Brown and dual-threat QB Evan Hanifee.
And they’ll do so with speed and technique, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle on each snap.
“I think, with the running backs that we have, we just have to create that much space and that much time and let our running backs do some of the work, too,” TA coach Charlie Newman said. “We’re not going to bulldoze and plow people down the field. That’s not going to be our mantra this year. We’re going to have to try to get the ball out, maybe in space, to our skill guys.”
That explains why Brown has lined up at wide receiver and in the slot at times this preseason.
Arguably TA’s most explosive running back, Brown lamented the team’s losses up front (especially tackle Nic Moyers, who is now at James Madison University) but hasn’t let it affect how he practices. On Day 3 without pads, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Brown executed routine agility drills with vein-popping intensity, as if they were somehow attached to TA’s playoff hopes. That was in spite of the fact he was still recovering from strep throat, Newman said.
“That’s the thing about him. When he steps on the field, you’re going to get everything you can from that guy,” said Newman, who is taking a running back by committee approach but called Brown “one of the best running backs around.”
Joining Brown in the backfield will be senior returners Josh Collins (fullback), Seth Hill (halfback) and Troy Knott (wingback). Knott, formerly a wide receiver for TA, missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Hanifee ran the ball effectively upon taking over the starting quarterback job during his sophomore season, and he led the Valley District with 1,271 passing yards as a junior last year. He went 77-for-142 (54 percent) with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. What’s in store for Year 3? Perhaps a mix, Newman said. After focusing on baseball recruiting much of last summer, Hanifee – a third baseman who has committed to Division I George Mason – appears to be more prepared for his final campaign.
Newman said the adjustment period Hanifee required last year to get a baseball-like hitch out of his throw lasted a few games, whereas now he appears to be closer to midseason form.
“I mean, he just throws lasers,” Newman said. “We had to tone it down a little bit just for the guys to even catch the football.”
Misdirection to play action should open up room to pass in the wing-T, and TA will still have a four-wideout spread package. But whom will Hanifee target? Justin Layman graduated after leading the league with 38 catches and 602 receiving yards. Roy Cubbage, who doubled as a leader at safety, is also gone. However, senior returner Cory Brown and some promising newcomers could provide a spark.
Pushing to play offense and defense as a freshman, Cody Warner has received rave reviews from coaches and teammates alike. On offense, Newman described Warner as a running back/wide receiver who has been “really impressive.”
“He’s a kid that can run,” Newman said. “He’s about [170 pounds]. He’s not tremendously large right now, but a real tough kid. He’s an especially hard-nosed kid for a ninth grader.”
Hanifee’s younger brother, Brennan, will also make his varsity debut as a sophomore wideout.
“I think we’ll have a pretty decent passing game this year, too,” Evan Hanifee said. “We’re running a lot of wing-T, but we still got all the Navy, the four wide receiver stuff. And we’ve got some good receivers.”
Hanifee said Brenan Hanifee will be a “good target” before adding a brotherly jab.
“Brennan’s not the fastest guy in the world,” he said, smiling. “But Cody and Troy are pretty quick.”
Quick like lightning. And that’s just how TA wants to play this season, based on its personnel.
That’s true on defense, too.
While TA brings back five returning starters on offense, it has just four on defense. Losing Moyers in the middle of its 3-4 at nose guard, the Knights entered the preseason thinnest at linebacker – a unit that graduated first-team All-Valley District selection Josh Powers and Shane Adkins.
Josh Harris and Ricky Smith return as book-end defensive ends, but TA will rely on team speed to boost a defense that’s inexperienced overall.
Not that smaller linemen or fewer veterans bother Hanifee.
“Our team is different this year,” the third-year starting QB said. “We’re a lot smaller, but I think we’re a lot quicker and smarter. … So I think we’ll be fine. Knowing what you’re doing every play is just as important as your talent.”