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North County tackles a sharper learning curve

BONNE TERRE – North County can thank a multitude of accomplished three-year starters for restoring its football program to heights not seen in nearly two decades.

But the nucleus from a Class 4 state semifinal push two seasons ago has moved on, and coach Brian Jones knew that a depletion in overall roster depth was soon to follow.

The Raiders enter this fall with eight listed seniors, which was expected. But the sudden subtraction of 10 from the current sophomore group seems alarming.

North County heads into the rivalry opener against Farmington – which relied heavily on a young varsity lineup in 2022 – with just two returning offensive starters plus four on defense.

Jones holds realistic expectations of his crew to steadily improve each day, and is prepared to embrace any chance to teach as common mistakes are sure to arise.

“We’re going to be a work in progress this year,” the seventh-year head coach said. “When you graduate 15 seniors, and 13 were starters at some point, you know that the next season will hold a big learning curve and have a lot of new faces.

“But it’s fun when the kids show up ready to work and absorb what you tell them. That gives you more patience dealing with the struggles that you’ll have with a young group.”

Zane Huff

Jones does not anticipate much expansion or contraction within his offensive playbook. The strength of his recent teams has been an aggressive ground game.

Jobe Smith graduated with several career and single-season school rushing records to his credit, along with multiple all-state selections.

His presence in the backfield and the steady work of a veteran offensive line eased the transition to quarterback last year for classmate Jack Moore.

Henry Allebach will not inherit a comparable safety cushion as the third starting QB in three seasons for the Raiders, but does have familiarity with the crew assigned to pave his path.

“We expect good things out of him after a strong summer,” Jones said. “He has matured physically, and his football IQ has really grown. He understands our passing game, and we have a better understanding about what he sees.”

Lucas Richardson

Left tackle Lucas Richardson anchors the line as its lone returning starter. Senior Carson Archer and junior Tyler Pipkin also took the field in crucial situations last year.

With an entirely new group of receivers stepping to the forefront, senior running back Zane Huff figures to draw an enhanced workload after serving as a viable back-up to Smith.

Huff amassed 102 yards in a wild victory over Battle, and followed up with some clutch carries in a week 6 road triumph over MAFC Red Division rival Festus before the Tigers got even in a district rematch.

The receiving positions are still being solidified as the Raiders focus on intermediate routes to move the chains. Brice Varner notched three receptions as a bright spot in defeat at Sullivan.

North County previously earned three notable wins by dominating fourth quarters. Stronger starts and the ability to dictate offensive tempo will be magnified going forward.

“When we can put together multiple double-digit drives in a game – whether we score or just take six to eight minutes of the clock and switch field position – our win-loss ratio is pretty respectable,” Jones said.

A superb second level helped a crop of new defensive linemen settle in last fall. The Raiders are seeing almost the complete opposite scenario unfold presently.

Xavier Scherffius

Xavier Scherffius showed improvement at defensive end while Pipkin and Archer provided some much-needed support when the interior starters needed rest.

Kollin Winch is easily the most experienced linebacker in the current fold, and like Scherffius, saw game reps steadily increase during his sophomore campaign.

“The worst defensive year of my tenure was 2019 when we gave up 32 points per game,” Jones said. “We feel that if we can keep opponents around 24 points, then we’ll have a chance.”

The secondary has been mostly revamped, except for Huff at safety, and Jones suspects that extensive 7-on-7 drills during the offseason may reap benefits regarding pass coverage.

North County may face a greater number of power-run offenses than normal, which could allow the back end of the defense to adapt at a more patient pace.

For the long term, the Raiders are touting a large freshman class. The program has rarely pressed that degree of youth into the varsity scene, and wants to avoid injures that may leave no choice.

Kollin Winch

“In my career at North County, I think there have been maybe four guys who were physically ready for the varsity level as ninth graders, and two of them have NFL resumes,” Jones said. “It’s a concern, so we hope that we don’t have to play them too soon. I think they’ll fit well into the mix next year.”

Cole Mullins appears ready to replace his older brother on special teams after Grant Mullins booted the most successful field goals in program history.

One change is looming on the schedule in week 5 with the Raiders traveling to Mount Vernon (Ill.). The decision was made to replace Battle due to potential lingering animosity following last-year’s game.

“We’re focused on playing our best football when it matters. In the last couple of years, we’ve caught some opponents in a retooling stage where they were playing young guys,” Jones said. “Even though we’re in that situation now, we still have expectations. We want to maximize our potential, whatever that may be.”

2023 Schedule:

Aug. 25 – at Farmington

Sept. 1 – St. Clair

Sept. 8 – at De Soto*

Sept. 15 – Hillsboro*

Sept. 22 – at Mt. Vernon (Ill.)

Sept. 29 – Festus*

Oct. 6 – at Windsor*

Oct. 13 – at Potosi

Oct. 19 – Sullivan

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