Good luck cracking the huddle belonging to the Mooresville High School football team.
This is one tight-knit den of Blue Devils.
That togetherness trait, stressed from the start and strongly tested, is what second-season Devils head coach Thad Wells sees as one of the strengths in place among this season’s players.
“Practicing and playing together,’’ said Wells, coming off a successful rookie season that resulted in nine wins against four defeats. The Devils went as deep as a second-round appearance in the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s smaller-enrollment 4A class playoffs.
“That’s what we’ve been talking about from day one. It shows. We had a great off season and our players are continuing to show that teamwork in our preparation. We’re taking it one day at a time and doing what we can, as a group, to get better,” Wells said.
Wells is also careful not to allow this year’s edition to merely ride the wave of last year’s efforts. Gone from the previous season’s roster are as many as 18 players who occupied starting positions on the first units.
“We came in here last year,’’ said Wells, who arrived on board following similarly successful seasons during a high school coaching career in bordering Virginia, “and we didn’t really know what to expect. We relied a lot on last year’s seniors for leadership. A lot of them are gone now, but they left us in good shape. We may be sort of starting over in a lot of places this year, too.”
That process experienced an unexpected delay in its development. In a non-football related tragedy involving some members of the team engaging in a community service project, teammate Gavin Sharpe was fatally injured after falling from the back of a truck. Several of the Blue Devils joined Wells in speaking to the more hundreds in attendance during a prayer vigil held one day after the accident.
“That hit us all hard,” said Wells. “You can’t prepare for something like that. We’ll never forget. It was tough to concentrate on football. The kids are adjusting as well as can be expected.”
In a way, having football to fall back on may have proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Mooresville, once again aligned with the ultra-powerful I-Meck Conference that is considered to be one of the premier circuits in the state, enters the season with some known qualities in place to surround those that are yet to be discovered.
“One thing is for sure,’’ said Wells,“we will be among the fastest teams I’ve ever been associated with. You can’t coach speed, but you can feel blessed as a coach when you have it. We plan on using that to our advantage.”
The speed is particularly in place on the offensive side of the scrimmage line. The returning presence of a pair of products helps see to that.
On the receiving corps alone, the twosome of speedsters Keshaun Black and Justin Torrence – the latter one of the team’s selections to merit pre-season All-I-Meck honors - instantly give the Blue Devils quick-striking weapons out of the spread offensive attack that will again be utilized. Back to help spread the wealth is returning starting quarterback Hunter DeBerardino, who spearheaded the unit before being sidelined late last season with an injury.
When not throwing the ball around, Mooresville will have an ample amount of options willing and able to handle the ground-gaining load. The duo consisting of returnees Glenwood Robinson and Ashton Edstrom join rank with the likes of Tyler Conner and Jebari Lackey to shoulder the rushing load.
“It’s great to know that we have so many options out of the backfield,’’ said Wells. “They’ve all shown the ability carry the ball with some success.”
The Devils will also follow a similar formation on the defensive front with key experienced personnel in place as well.
Ryan Jackson, as a linebacker, and cohort Malik Birchett, ringleader among the defensive backs, has each already been singled out by their teammates for leadership as team captains for the season. Devan Johnson has earned the nickname “Shredder” by his fellow players based on the efforts he has displayed as a returning starting linebacker as well.
“Defense is always expected to be a little ahead of the offense,’’ explained Wells. “We’ve got the leaders in place to make us feel good about that unit.”
Special team play is also being billed as a pivotal part of Mooresville’s success. Placekicker Isaac Riffle is back to defend his team-leading points production. Riffle will handle all point-after-touchdown and field-goal kicking duties while again being part of a charitable fundraising campaign helping raise funds for the fight against childhood cancer. He will be seeking pledges for donations from every point he scores this season.
Riffle has also secured membership to the pre-season All-I-Meck roster.
“With Isaac,” said Wells, “we’re confident of our ability to get into scoring position on a regular basis.”
From appearances, all points will indeed prove welcome.
Mooresville again faces a stiff non-conference schedule taking it deep into the month of September before venturing into the thick of I-Meck play. All but one of the circuit’s eight teams qualified for either the 4A or larger-enrollment 4AA class playoffs last season. Member Vance made it as far as the 4AA finals before finishing as the state runner-up.
“Don’t remind me,’’ said Wells of the season’s daunting schedule. “At least we know that, every game, we’ll have to be at our best.” Following a pair pre-season scrimmage appearances spiced by serving as the host for the eight-team Carolina Preps Jamboree, Mooresville kicks off play at home against West Rowan Aug. 23.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Keshaun Black: Speed thrills. Black is full of it. The returning starter will again fill a position on the pass receiving corps, serving as a primary target in the Blue Devils’ spread-offense aerial attack. Black may also spend some time as a defensive back while being called on to handle some of the special team kick-return duties.
Ryan Jackson: Already respected by his teammates, Jackson will return to anchor the defensive linebacker staff. Named a captain by his peers, the two-year starter may also take some snaps offensively courtesy of prior experience as a tight end.
Isaac Riffle: Getting in his kicks, Riffle will handle the team’s placekicking duties for kickoffs, after-touchdowns and field goals. He was the team’s leading scorer last season and has shown added leg strength in attempts to better his career-best distance.