Trojans gunning for new playoff streakBy JOSHUA CAMPBELL,
The West Marion Trojans’ 2018 season was a tale of two halves. They began the year a perfect 6-0 in non-district play before faltering down the stretch, going 1-4 in Region 8-3A and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Head coach Brad Duncan went back to the drawing board a little bit and will deploy a different offensive approach as well as a much different non-district schedule. Duncan said it was an emphasis to improve the quality of the non-district schedule, and besides East Marion and Lumberton each of the teams on tap are a Class 4A school.
Duncan said he believes the biggest difference for the Trojans in 2019 is that they’re a year older, a year stronger and a year wiser after only having four seniors last season and having the largest group of seniors they’ve had coming back this year since 2012.
“They’ve been starters for a while, and they’ve been to battle. That’s what we talked about this whole summer. ‘Y’all have been to war a bunch of times; it’s time to make it happen now.’ All of the (mistakes) we saw on film last year won’t be there this year because we are a year older and more experienced,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest asset we have is experience.”
Junior Jartavious “Tater Rabbit” Martin said leadership is key to improving this season and that the Trojans have bought in during the summer like never before. Third-year starting quarterback Jeremiah Holmes said the difference in commitment for himself and the team has been night and day.
“I wished I would have worked as hard my freshman year as I did this year,” he said. “Every day of the week I’ve been doing something, no matter what it is, two or three times.”
Senior Blake Lowery said team chemistry will play a big part in West Marion potentially taking a step forward as well because last year they weren’t really on the same page.
“Our attitudes towards the team and each other have gotten better. We’ve all grown closer as a team, and I feel that’s really going to help us a lot,” he said.
Duncan said the Trojans’ biggest weakness will be what it has always been: They don’t have enough depth. Duncan expects to have a gameday roster of about 35, and a lot of their starters will have to play both ways.
“We can’t be fatigued, just have to keep fighting. Even when we do get tired, we can’t show it,” junior Qavonte Swanigan said.
Holmes returns to lead the offense after passing for 21 touchdowns against just five interceptions, and Duncan classified him as an incredible and special kid.
“He’s not your smoothest or your greatest athlete, and I don’t mean that in any way as a knock, but that sucker is a winner and a leader. That’s what he does,” he said. “He’s gotten better at making throws. He’s not the prettiest making throws back there sometimes, but he makes them. And our guys will follow him. That’s the biggest thing.”
Octavious Harvey and Martin will both see time at running back, in the slot and wherever the coaching staff can put them to make plays. Duncan said they may even receive some direct snaps with an H-back, either Holmes, Jayden Duncan or Blake Lowery, leading the way.
“We’re going to try to get our playmakers the ball. You’re going to see those guys lined up in a lot of different spots,” he said. “(Swanigan) falls in the same category, and he’s going to get some snaps at quarterback. Q coming back is huge. He’s a difference maker.”
Duncan said all of the guys who will be asked to move around he believes are smart and versatile enough to do it and give West Marion’s a bunch of different looks offensively.
Harvey said the offense left a lot on the table, and it’s up to them to make the plays the coaches put them in position to make. And while he’s just 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds, he packs the punch of a much larger man because of his determination.
“Every time I get on the field I’m going to give 110 percent. I’m going to try to be better than everybody I play against because I know there’s going to people bigger than me and there might be some better than me. But I’m going to play hard every play,” he said.
On the outside Swanigan will be joined by O’Marion Husband and Ott Mitchell.
“O’Marion Husband, I really expect him to have a really good year. He had a couple of drops last year, a couple of blown drops last year, but this summer has been incredible for him,” Duncan said. “He’s worked really hard, and there’s no doubt the talent is there.”
Duncan is also proud of the work Mitchell, who has only ever played defense, has put in to make himself one of the top receivers on the team.
“Since Christmas this kid has made his mind up, and he’s been a playmaker on offense and the same guy he’s always been on defense. College coaches are really starting to like him, too,” Duncan said. “He has some range, really long arms, can run well enough and his ball skills are starting to improve from his work on the offensive side.”
Up front the Trojans return Josh Ham, who potentially has a collegiate future as a deep snapper, at center. Blaten Norris, who missed most of last season with a back injury, could see some snaps at guard. Duncan said Teddy Williams is the best lineman West Marion has returning and will switch between right tackle and right guard based on opponent. Cade Heurtin will protect Holmes’ blindside at left tackle. Ka’Marius Husband has some position flex and could play right tackle if needed but is also athletic enough to be a tight end or H-back. Chris Martin and Jarvis Craft could potentially fill in at guard as well.
Duncan said the plan going into the season is to be more balanced between the run and the pass, and the Trojans are going to mix up their formations while keeping the same personnel on the field. He said his athletes are versatile enough to produce in power formations one play and spread the next, which could keep defenses guessing.
Defensively the Trojans are only having to replace three starters, two of which are at cornerback. Mitchell started earlier in his career as a strong safety but has transitioned to corner and has the length and quickness to disrupt receivers early in routes. Duncan said he’s been impressed with Tyler Aikens over the summer, and he could take over the other corner spot.
“He’s another kid who has been busting it this summer; holy cow. He doesn’t get to do winter stuff with us because he’s in basketball and baseball, but this summer he has just stood out for us,” he said. “He’s starting to grow and get some belief in himself.”
The other starter missing is Daqwan Jones, who transferred to Columbia, at linebacker, but Duncan said he believes Brian Blakeney can help fill the void.
“Man he runs to the ball well,” Duncan said. “He fits our scheme well. He’s a little, bitty, skinny dude that can run and make tackles.”
Harvey, Holmes and Duncan will rotate at linebacker, too, to stay fresh with the roles they play on offense. Ka’Marius Husband, Holmes and Blakeney could factor in at defensive end also. Lowery and Norris have made a living blowing up plays in the backfield as penetrating defensive tackles and return for their senior year.
“Our personnel defensively is really going to depend on what kind of scheme we do that week,” Duncan said. “(Brandon) Thornhill does a great job with that. It depends on what you’re going to do to determine what Thornhill is going to do to offset your offense.”
West Marion also welcomed back Jordyn Mahaffey from Columbia Academy. The 6-foot-5 senior spent most of his life at West Marion before transferring to the private school a year ago. Duncan said Mahaffey will factor in on both sides of the ball and could be used at tight end, H-back, defensive end and defensive tackle.
The Trojans are going to have to navigate a difficult district to get back to the playoffs, but they’re confident they can do it.
“We’re going to be good this year and make it to the playoffs definitely,” Mitchell said. “Easy.”
Mitchell added there’s no doubt in his mind the Trojans are not only going to take back the county championship but that they don’t have a ceiling with how good they can be.
Pictured Above: From left, Jartavious "Tater Rabbit" Martin, Jeremiah Holmes and Josh Ham lead the Trojans into the 2019 season. | Photo by Joshua Campbell