OAKWOOD — As much as Anthony Prophet and E.J. Young meant to the Knights last year, their graduation might have more of an impact this year.
“We lost some very experienced players last year,” Johnson coach Paul Friel said. “I think this team realizes they’re not going to be able to lean on any one person.”
That attitude has been present throughout the offseason and Friel calls this year’s team unity the best he’s ever seen.
“I’m excited about our prospects,” Friel said. “Our kids want to be together, they want to play together and they care about each other.”
Johnson has struggled in recent years to maintain a deep roster, but this year, the Knights have had 40 players show up throughout the offseason and will start the year with 43 players on the roster.
Prophet’s graduation subtracted more than 1,300 total yards of offense and 11 touchdowns, and created a large void at quarterback.
Filling his shoes is Luke Gilleland, who according to Friel “does a great job of running the offense.”
That means committing to running the football, and Johnson has several capable athletes to accomplish the game plan.
Brandon Buncy, Christian Dixon, Cedric Harris and A.J. Millwood will all see substantial time at split back this season, and each of them bring a different running style to the game. According to Friel, Buncy and Dixon are more of the “speed” guys, while Harris and Millwood can get around defenders or slip out of would-be tackles.
Their lead blocker will be the tandem of Kevin Avila and Joey Brooks, both juniors who will play equal time at fullback.
“I don’t know how you select a starter between all of our backs,” Friel said.
While he won’t be asked to throw too much, Gilleland has a big receiving target in tight end Cody Lewallen. The 6-foot-6 Lewallen also plays on the defensive line, and is a reliable option over the middle and close to the goal line.
“Our skill guys may be new, but they have experience,” Friel said.
With the hiring of defensive coordinator Jimmy Quinn, the Knights have switched to a 4-2-5 defense this year to help slow down some of the high-powered offenses in their subregion.
“We think it’s best versus the teams we play and the personnel we have,” Friel said. “We’ll be able to adjust when we get to the passing teams.”
The key to that adjustment, and the Knights’ success as a unit, will be the play of the defensive line, which consists of Lewallen and Mason Borders at end, and David Harkins and Blake Forrester at tackle.
“Our line is the strong point,” Friel said. “We have a young secondary but the guys are as good of athletes as we’ve ever had.”
One of those guys is Gilleland, who is likely to play as much safety as he does quarterback.
“I’m trying to not worry about that,” Friel said of the situation.
Buncy will play another corner position, with Brooks, Avila and Taylor Whitmire anchoring the linebacking corps. The three linebackers provide a wealth of experience in the middle of the field and are versatile enough to stop the run or drop back into coverage.
Friel implemented a new special teams drill to end most practices, but the team still enters the season with questions in the kicking game.
“We’re spending a lot of time on that,” Friel said. “Hopefully, we’re going to get better at it.”
Inexperience may cause some rough times this year for the Knights, but the lessons learned this season will help out in the future.