BRIDGEWATER — Turner Ashby High School football coach Charlie Newman built a state champion in 2005 with a power running game and a lights-out defense.
His 2013 Knights – who stumbled and stuttered to a 3-7 finish – had the offense part down pat. TA averaged 29.7 points per game and tailback Shane Brown rushed for 1,553 yards on 181 carries.
But the defense struggled, and it’s at the top of Newman’s to-do list.
“That has taken a lot of precedence right now,” Newman said before Friday’s preseason practice. “When we sat down the other night with the depth chart, we wanted to make sure we had the best 11.”
The Knights – who open the season on Sept. 5 at Brookville – return just three starters on defense, losing their entire linebacker corps. Newman believes TA has depth, albeit mostly from a class of 28 inexperienced sophomores.
“We’ve got a lot more depth than we’ve ever had,” Newman said. “It’s young depth, but I think it’s quality depth.”
More depth means more players playing on only one side of the ball.
The perfect example of that is senior nose guard Josh Harris, who played offensive tackle as a junior in addition to defensive tackle. Newman said the two-way role for Harris last year took a toll on the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder physically. During a 30-23 win over Broadway, Newman said, Harris’ entire body cramped up, a byproduct of the number of snaps he was playing.
“We had him as a two-way guy, and there were a couple games where it looked like a MASH unit,” Newman said.
Even on TA’s state title team, the Knights used two or three players on both sides of the ball. For a 3A team like TA, it’s rare to have enough quality players (with the necessary size) to two-way platoon.
“This might be the closest we’ve ever come to being able to do that,” Newman said.
Newman said junior Dalton Gilkerson (240 pounds) and Vasily Dronov (240 pounds) are the other likely starters on the defensive line.
“It’s still working, but we’ve got some speed and we know what’s coming,” said Harris, who benches 315 pounds, the most on the team.
Running the 3-4 defense for the third season, Newman said he likes the versatility the scheme gives the Knights when facing spread offenses. While he’d like to have a big spacer-eater at defensive tackle, he thinks Harris can make up for his size with his strength.
“Josh, he’s put together and he’s probably flat-out our strongest kid,” Newman said. “We’re counting on him in the middle to be a force. He’s a guy that could play on the offensive line, but we’ve got some depth and some bigger bodies. We’re not huge, but we’re bigger and stronger than we were last year. We’re confident with that.”
TA lost four games last season by seven points or less. The Knights often saw their defense wear down as teams continued to run the ball effectively against a small front.
“We have to be able to stop the run,” Newman said. “Last year we had the most difficulty we’ve had in years. At times we were right there, and that’s not why we lost every game, but if you can’t stop the run in football you’re going to be hurting.”
TA’s big run-stopper Harris said his role is pretty simple.
“Just tearing stuff up,” he said.