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Return of the fallen

North Hall looks for greatness after 5-5 season

POSTED: August 23, 2011 2:45 p.m.

There was a time at North Hall when a .500 record was acceptable. That was before Bob Christmas took over.

Last year's 5-5 mark was the Trojans' first non-winning record since 2001, Christmas' first season, and their first time to miss the playoffs since 2005.

This fall, with running back/linebacker Imani Cross and deeper, more experienced units on the offensive and defensive fronts, North Hall seems primed for a return to the postseason.

Offense

Cross (6-2, 230) has been reeling off dazzling runs since his freshman year and has one more fall to make his mark.

Last season, in his first year at North Hall, the University of Tennessee recruit missed the first month while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. But that didn't stop him from rushing for 586 yards (9.3 per carry) and scoring 16 total touchdowns.

"As good as Imani was last year, you're going to see a different guy this year," Christmas said. "You've got to remember, he tore that Achilles before he ever had a chance to practice with us in the spring, so he didn't have the benefit of spring ball, and in the summer he couldn't do anything.

"But I'll tell you what, he has had a phenomenal offseason. You're going to see him at a whole other level this year."

Cross and the rest of the Trojans will have a veteran group clearing holes for them.

"We were so young up front last year, we were just trying to piece it together," Christmas said. "Now those kids are a year older. They've got a year of experience under their belt, and what was kind of a weakness for us last year as far as experience, is going to be a strength for us this year."

The offense showed signs of progress last season, rushing for an average for 409 yards per game in the final two contests after being held to less than 150 in each of the previous three games.

Cam Howell, who moved from fullback to guard prior to last season, and tackle Alan Kattelman return to lead the offensive line.

One of the biggest questions facing the Trojans will be who steps into the quarterback role vacated by Kanler Coker who's now at Flowery Branch.

"To be honest with you, I feel like I've got two good ones," Christmas said, referring to Bradley Brown (6-1, 190, Jr.) and Andrew Smith (5-8, 145, So.). "(Brown) is a big, physical kid, throws the ball decent and he's a hard runner," Christmas said. "(Smith) has got great speed, a very athletic kid, and throws the ball well."

With the Trojans' bye week coming on Aug. 26, when most other schools are kicking off the regular season,
Christmas plans to let the QB competition play out until the week before North Hall opens at Jefferson on Sept. 2.
Elsewhere in the backfield, speedy Caleb Faulkner (5-10, 170, Jr.) has the edge to earn the starting spot at fullback, Eli Gilmer and Marcus Hulsey are expected to contribute at wingback, and Kevin Christmas will back up Cross.

Jesse Strickland, who was in line to start as the team's split end and return specialist, is expected to miss the season due to a knee injury. In his place, Justin Jones, Wade Phillips and Will Cape are competing for time.

Defense

As on offense, getting better on the line has been a point of emphasis for the defense as well. The Trojans gave up 28 points or more in five games last fall and struggled at times to stop the run, giving up an average of 225 yards per game.

They hope to change that, starting with a big group in the middle. Averaging 260 pounds, Eric Carroll, Matt Pratt, Patrick Chappell and Avery Easton are expected to man the tackle positions. Howell and Kattelman may see time at end, along with Eric Gonter and Dylan Truelove.

"We're going to be strong up front on both sides of the ball," Christmas said. "And we're two deep with kids we can play without losing anything."

At linebacker, Cross posted 77 tackles in 2010 and will be part of a three-man rotation with Derek Satterfield and Taylor Rider at the two inside spots. Outside linebacker candidates include Kevin Christmas, Brown and Cody Fowler.

Gilmer, Cape and Phillips are expected to get the bulk of playing time at cornerback. At safety, Smith could get the nod, but Faulkner and Hulsey are also in the mix.

"It's hard to keep Andrew Smith off the field," Christmas said, "but I'm not sure that any of those guys have the edge over the others right now."

Special teams

Wade Phillips, who averaged 31.4 yards on 10 punts last year, returns, but the team will be breaking in a new placekicker. Modesto Cruz, who kicked for the junior varsity team last season, is the leading candidate.

Outlook

The Trojans lost a lot from last year's team, including high-profile transfers, Coker and Division-I prospects C.J. and Darius Curry. But fans can expect a typical Bob Christmas team: hard-nosed defense and a proficient running game. It's a formula that this fall could produce its eighth playoff team in 11 seasons.



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