By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
A change in defensive philosophy has played a key role in North Laurel earning a playoff berth this season. The Jaguars have held opponents to one touchdown less per game than last year. The 192 points allowed by North Laurel this season is the lowest in the four years of Chris Larkey. It is also lower than the 245 points allowed by the last North Laurel team to make it to the playoffs, the 2004 team coached by Greg Duncum.
The North Laurel coaches decided after last season to switch from a five-man defensive front to a three-man front. The decision was based on getting the best athletes on the defensive side.
“We wanted guys that could run and guys that would give us effort every single play and swarm to the football,” North Laurel coach Chris Larkey said.
Once the players were graded by speed, the question was where to place them.
“Basically we looked at our team and said, ‘Who are our 11 fastest guys?’” North Laurel defensive coordinator Shane Sams said. “Rashawn (Andrews) was one of them, so that was good. We picked the two biggest ones, which was (Andrews and) Aaron Gabbard.”
Andrews, Gabbard, and Shakori Needham on the line allowed North Laurel to plug the next eight athletes into positions that suited them best. A big key would be Andrews, who exploded onto the scene as a senior.
“Rashawn Andrews is one lineman and he takes the place of three linemen. He’s dominated in every game we’ve played,” Sam said. “Rashawn and the effort our kids have given is the reason we have been so successful on defense this year.”
Andrews moves to different positions on the line. He may line up as a defensive tackle or a nose guard, depending on what the opponent does.
“If they are more of an off-tackle team we put him outside. If they are an inside running team or we think he can dominate one of the inside linemen, then we put him on the inside,” Sams said. “They try to block him with two people, three people. We have seen four people on him and he just can’t be stopped.”
Andrews played defensive end last season, but added 40 pounds in the weight room during the offseason. He now squats about 475 pounds and benches more than 300 pounds. At 240 pounds, he was projected to be a linebacker, at 275 the plan changed.
“He just blew up into this monster, but he could still run as fast as he could before,” Sams said. “He’s had a lot of opposing coaches tell him, ‘You’re the best lineman we’ve played all year.’”
The second line of defense for the Jaguars is linebackers Gabe Blair, Austin Baker, and Jake McFadden. Cole Lewis and Josh Velasco play outside linebacker. These are the North Laurel tackling machines. Every week it is Blair, Baker, or McFadden leading the team in tackles with each totaling in the 70s and 80s in tackles for the year.
“Gabe Blair, Austin Baker, and Jake McFadden are very close (in tackles). It’s been very balanced. One of our goals this season was to have more assists than solo tackles,” Sams said.
That goal was reached with the number of assisted tackled doubling from last year; a sign the jaguars are swarming.
“Every week those three lead us in tackles, followed by Cole (Lewis) and Michael (Nelson), just like you draw it up,” Sam said.
It is Velasco that gets the nod from Sams as the team’s best all-around tackler.
“Just because of effort. If he misses you the first time, he’s going to get back up and chase you down,” Sams said. “One-on-one I’m going to pick Velasco to be the guy that’s going to make that tackle.”
Lewis is another sure tackler with the ability to cover the speedy receivers or make a play at the line.
“Cole is probably our best all around defender where he is fast he can play the end. He can play the sweep. He can come in and take on a fullback,” Sams said.
One question coming into the season was how the defensive secondary would perform. The Jaguars switched from man coverage to zone and again having athletes available worked. The speed of Nelson at safety, Hacker and Isaac Napier at the corners, has paid off.
“We felt like if we could keep it in front of us we had guys back that could catch anybody. Michael Nelson can catch anybody. Jansen Hacker is a fast guy. That’s kind of been our philosophy, bend don’t break. Keep it in front of us and take our chances,” Sam said.
Napier has tied the school record with five interceptions, a big reason the Jaguars have a double-digit turnover margin. They have also forced 10 fumbles.
“We were a lot better against the pass than we thought we would be. We were going to rely on pressure to stop the pass. We planned on blitzing a ton,” Sams said.
Only one team has scored more than 30 points against North Laurel this season, much better than the six teams last season or the five the two previous years. That one team was Russell County, who remains undefeated and was held under 30 points only when it scored 28 against Pulaski County.
“We’ve not really had a bad game. We’ve had bad spurts where we’ve gotten comfortable, like Pulaski County. For three quarters we shut them down and caused four turnovers. Then for some reason we took our foot off the gas and couldn’t get our mojo back until they were ahead,” Sam said.
There are not many two-way players on defense this season. Blair, Nelson, and Lewis see the most action on offense.
“The skill guys are in better shape than the linemen, so I think that has helped us out a whole lot,” Larkey said.
If Nelson has just broken a long run on offense, his brother Stephen steps in at safety. Should Blair need a break after several pounding runs on offense, Jake McWhorter gets the call at linebacker.