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KENLY — There was a healthy sense of anticipation surrounding the practice field at North Johnston High on Thursday morning.
While the Panthers of the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference continued preseason football practice in the same spirit as the previous August sessions, a sense of purpose and seriousness settled over the space just across the way from Ben E. Strifert Stadium.
Coaches were quick to remind players, specifically linemen, that North Johnston’s only scrimmage — the Muddy Water Jamboree at Smithfield-Selma — was just six days away.
But the immediate sense of anticipation? Friday marks the first day of live contact, which means the Panthers of first-year head coach Michael Barnett will quickly develop answers to their most pressing questions.
“I’ll go to the NFL and run 7-on-7s,” Barnett said during a break in practice Thursday. “But when they put the pads on, I’m going to have to get off the field! There’s nowhere to hide.”
The dawn of full-contact practice also means the famed “Oklahoma” drill would have its run in Kenly. Coincidentally, the NFL, in late May, decided to ban the use of the drill in professional training camps, which involves ball carriers and defenders meeting in a confined area for live contact.
“It’s amazing, every year as a coach, I’ve seen kids that were tentative to hit,” Barnett said. “And you get them in that drill a little bit, and they realize ‘Hey! This is kind of fun.’ “And they turn that switch on. And then other kids, turn it off.”
While a handful of performers have already passed contact muster with previous varsity experience, there’s still the matter of finding out which junior varsity candidates have the potential to contribute on Friday nights in an expedient manner.
Those questions don’t arrive at conclusions until man meets man. Or more accurately, adolescent spars with adolescent.
“We get to see who’s pretending and who’s contending,” Barnett said. “We see who’s a football player, and who just wants to run around in a jersey.”
As it has for most of the preseason, the message and tone remained consistent from Barnett and staff on Thursday. Voices weren’t kept at a high octave, although Barnett had to briefly yell at his offensive line at one point to keep quiet.
“The kids are getting more serious,” Barnett said. “You can tell we’re pretty lighthearted back here. We’re laughing, and we’re joking. But, they’re getting serious. Leaders are starting to develop, they’re starting to feel that sense of urgency. Next week we’ve got the scrimmage, and the week after that is our first game. You can start to see it in their eyes — it’s starting to get real for them.”
But at the same time, the first-year coach has his own butterflies as the countdown continues to not only contact, but confronting an opponent other than teammates in practice.
“It’s the most exciting part, but it’s also the most challenging,” Barnett said. “Because you’re not sure. You’ve prepared and you’ve prepared, and now you see something different and you’re not sure how we’re going to react.”
Yet that’s not to say that the first days, sans contact and tackling to the ground, are all for naught.
“It’s just teaching,” Barnett said of the days leading up to contact. “What’s my stance? Because once you start hitting, you forget about it. We want it to be muscle memory. My stance is this, my technique is this — instead of thinking. Because you start getting punched in the mouth, that goes out the window.”
North Johnston hosts Red Springs in its season-opener on Aug. 23.