LOVINGSTON — As talk turned from the offseason to the slate ahead, a smile spread across players’ faces.
Work done in the spring and summer months led to plenty of positive changes for the small squad in rural Nelson County, they said. An increase in strength and knowledge was worth celebrating, but what lies on the horizon is more exciting.
In less than two months, Nelson football will face a challenge it hasn’t taken on in two years, and a challenge players and coaches welcome. With 2019 comes Nelson's return to the Dogwood District, and with a team with more experience than it’s had in years, the Governors believe they’re ready for the test.
“I felt like [since] we left the Dogwood, the Dogwood’s always been on our back,” senior Felix Rodriguez said.
Not for a moment during the two years they spent competing as an independent, the ever-confident running back explained, did the Governors forget who they’d line up against in 2019.
“While we took the break those two years, we always had in the back of our head that if we want to compete [in that district], we’ve got to work two times harder, work harder than we’ve ever worked before,” Rodriguez said.
And that mindset, players say, has led to gains on the gridiron.
For a team still lacking depth at certain spots on the field, the biggest change has come in players’ knowledge of the game. Upon coach Matt Hicks’ arrival three years ago, players got to work on just the basics. Learning how to block and how to tackle the right way were the priorities.
“It used to be the most nervous part of a practice, whenever I had to talk to media people and know that while my coaches work hard, there might be two or three guys on the entire team that know what they’re doing,” Hicks said.
Now, according to senior James Johnson, a leader on the offensive line and in the linebacking corps, players can work running plays to perfection or reading the coverage, and knowing exactly where to be on the defensive end.
“We’ve come a real long way in the past four years,” Johnson said. “We’re a lot smarter, stronger, faster, and we’ve got a whole lot of chemistry with each other.”
On both sides of the ball, Nelson will look to rely on its speed. Outside of the quarterback spot, there’s still a lack of size among skill positions. The same goes for linebackers and defensive backs. But a group of young players who’ve shown promise in past seasons or in other sports, including junior Jamel Rose and seniors Brice Wilson and basketball and soccer standout Houston Carter, have quickness that should help in route-running and chasing down opponents during defensive assignments.
Nelson’s other strength likely will be its quarterback, George Brown.
The junior got his first chance to take over the offense a season ago, taking over the reins from a much smaller Wilson, and his height and big arm paid off in the form of big gains for the Governors.
At 6-foot-3, Brown has 8 inches on Wilson, and was able to see over the defense easier, and the Governors found a better fit for Wilson at wide receiver, a role he’ll play again this season. The two connected often and must do so again to make up for the loss of a pair of tall targets in Damien Jacques and Devon Cousins, who graduated.
As he worked to balance his run ability, which also netted big gains and a few touchdowns, Brown, a lefty, used his arm strength to pick up plenty of first downs and yardage in chunks.
In the offseason, he said, he’s worked on his footwork and throwing mechanics, and has tried to become a student of the game to be able to read defenses better.
Additionally, Hicks said, Brown has become a better leader and is working to improve his accuracy, from his completion percentage of 53% in 2018, to be able to attack defenses for necessary short gains to complement his ability to throw the deep ball.
Hicks said the Governors also will rely on their run game — composed of Brown, senior Brandon Jamerson at h-back or fullback and Rodriguez and junior Aveon Tabb at running back — to keep teams honest.
“I still think if you look at how we’re constructed this year, we’ve got great depth at the running back position and a quarterback who is a threat to run,” Hicks said. “I think teams have to respect that, and we want them to respect that first. I think the great thing about our setup is we have some really fast receivers on the outside, so if teams decide they want to load up, we’ve got a quarterback with a really good arm and some receivers that can really push teams down the field. One really works to set up the other pretty well.”
Despite facing daunting Dogwood District powerhouses — like Appomattox, which reeled off three straight state championship in recent years, and Gretna, which has surged lately thanks to a spate of bruising backs — the Governors believe they have weapons of their own that, along with their experience, can help them be competitive in 2019.
“We’re ready for it,” Wilson said, “and we’re going into it with no fear.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
A season ago, there was some question as to who would lead the offense for Nelson. This year, Brown has the job locked down. After getting his feet wet in 2018, Brown knows now what it takes to be successful at the varsity level. At 6-foot-3 (165 pounds), his height and his arm strength give the left-hander the ability to launch downfield for long gains. Look for more of that, along with improved footwork and accuracy this season.
Rodriguez looks to be one of Nelson's main weapons on offense once again entering his final season, and with added muscle and strength should be able to power through to help move the chains. As the 5-foot-7, 205-pound back works to improve his agility and footwork with hopes of gaining 6 or 7 yards per carry, he'll also look to continue to exploit his strength as a downhill runner.
Wilson certainly isn't the most imposing player on the field, checking in at 5-foot-7, 145 pounds, but what he lacks in size he makes up for in work ethic. Wilson is one of the most vocal leaders on the team and doesn't take a play off. Look for his agility to help him get to runners quickly out of the safety slot for a surprising number of tackles. And on the offensive side, he'll be tasked with replacing two tall targets, Devon Cousins and Damien Jacques, who hauled in passes for big gains a season ago.