Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
If it’s hard now, it’ll be easier later.
This summer, that mantra is driving the North Johnston football program out in the summer heat of July.
During preseason workouts on July 10, sparse clouds didn’t cast much forgiveness down on the Panthers. Nonetheless, the hard work continued in hopes that it will come in handy midseason, when the action on the football field counts for wins and losses.
“You don’t win games during the season,” said senior running back Rakuan Rodrigues, who transferred in this season after spending three years at Smithfield-Selma. “You win them in the offseason.”
To meet the demands of the season, first-year head coach Michael Barnett has his players out on the field early three days a week through the non-dead weeks of July. On this particular day, the focus is defense. While the junior varsity squad took the field for position drills, the varsity team hit the weight room. Then the two teams switched.
“That’s alright,” one assistant coach called out in between drills. “We’re still learning. It’s day 2.”
It has taken time to adjust to the new systems being put in place — because both the offense and defense will be new.
On the defensive end, the Panthers aim to simplify the defensive front, while making aggression the main focus.
In front of the tennis courts, defensive linemen focused their attention on the initial steps of swim moves, practicing on dummies and pads held by a partner, then transitioned to a scoop-and-score drill in case of fumbles. In the middle of the practice field, linebackers mimicked dropping back into coverage and reacting to the quarterback, while defensive backs simulated covering receivers.
While little offense was seen out on the practice field, the Panthers will unveil a new system on the other side of the ball in 2019, too, switching dramatically from the air raid to an option offense.
Barnett said the new scheme demands more physicality than needed before. Instead of long passing touchdowns, the bread and butter will become short gains and spurts of yards that break down the defense over time.
During breaks, the players run up the hill on the baseball field side of the practice area to a hose and dump water on their heads. The heat and exertion is draining, but by design. In just over two hours of work a day, Barnett wants to teach his team to internalize the lesson that’s pushing them, which he learned while in basic training for the National Guard.
“This is where the season is made. This is where you get ahead of other guys,” Barnett said. “This is where you’re in the fourth quarter in a close game and you dig down deeper because you’re used to hard work. When you go to basic training they break you to start with and they’re dogging you physically and a little bit mentally, so when you get to the end it’s easier. We’re not out here dogging them, cussing at them, but it’s hard work.”
Barnett said he’s been impressed by the willingness of his players to return day after day to go to work again. With summer jobs and family situations, he understands it isn’t always possible to have his entire program come to the optional summer workouts. But he’s already been impressed by the strong showing of players who want to rebound from a 3-8 showing in 2018.
“Very few people show up at 7:30 in the morning in the summer smiling, laughing, joking, working hard,” Barnett explained. “They’ll leave here sweat dripping and still laughing and joking. It’s a good group of kids.”
To achieve the offensive goals, Barnett said he will rely on returning senior quarterback Camden Aycock, who threw for 1,004 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions last season.
Behind him in the backfield, Aycock will have Rodrigues and last year’s leading rusher in Camron Privette, who averaged 6.9 yards per carry last season in 148 rushes.
“It’s going to be dependent upon those three guys to be physically and mentally tough,” Barnett said, “because they’re going to take a beating.”
Coming from Smithfield Selma, Rodrigues has seen just two wins in high school. After moving to a new house that put him closer to North Johnston than his old school, he’s been looking forward to working with old friends in an offense that he was accustomed to running as a Spartan.
“Me and Camden, we grew up together playing,” Rodrigues said. “I grew up with half of these boys."
Though the offense hasn’t changed much since he became a Panther, Rodrigues is still adjusting to other new aspects that come with joining a different program, and taking it all in stride.
Aycock said the whole team is embracing the new that has come in the preseason, with players committing themselves to learning as much as possible to achieve their ultimate goal of having a winning season.
“We had a really good team last year, but we didn’t really get the results we wanted,” Aycock said. “This year, we’re going to be a different team, a new offense, new defense, new coaches. So I think it’s going to be alright for a senior year.”