Big plays on the football field will be provided by the Thompson High offense this season. Thompson head coach Mark Freeman is certain that will happen.
However, it’s something much less exciting that Freeman demands from his offense.
“If we’re consistent over the course of a game, we’re going to be okay,” said Freeman, whose team begins play on Friday night in the Champions Challenge against James Clements at the Crampton Bowl in Montgomery.
It’s hard to imagine a more consistent quarterback for Freeman’s offensive system than senior Taulia Tagovailoa. The 5-foot-11 senior completed nearly 66 percent of his passes last season, compiling 3,823 yards and 36 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He did that despite sitting out for much of the second half in several games because the Warriors were leading by large margins.
What’s scary – at least for Thompson opponents – is the University of Alabama commit is poised to be even better this season with a year of seasoning in the Warriors’ offensive system.
“There’s an advantage to having a guy back for the second year,” Freeman said. “They know what we’re trying to accomplish. They’ve been through the battles, they’ve been through a season. Our system will not change. They’ve seen about everything. It’s taking our base stuff and, now, we can add some things to that.”
Tagovailoa, a four-star recruit, who is one of the country’s premier prep quarterbacks, will once again be joined in the backfield by standout running back Shadrick Byrd. As a junior, Byrd rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Byrd also plays a huge role in the passing game, grabbing 23 catches with three touchdown receptions. However, catching the ball is not the only way that Byrd, another Warrior who will play college football next season, makes a big contribution to the passing game. He also makes sure that Tagovailoa is protected.
“What we don’t want to do is give a free hit on the quarterback,” Freeman said. “He knows the coverages, he knows the protection, he knows where to get when he doesn’t have the ball. There are a lot of times where we have five guys in the route. That running back is always checking collision first. If he has collision then his priority is to take on that collision. Shad and the running backs are good about knowing there protection and responsibilities. If it’s not there, then they got to get out in the route.”
Graduated running back JoJo Ford left some big shoes to fill in the backfield. Ford, who Freeman said “added so much to our running schemes”, did the bulk of his work out of the spotlight. He also provided more than 700 yards rushing with eight touchdowns.
“JoJo brought a lot to us,” Freeman said. “He was another type of running back than Shad. He was a downhill, punishing running back. The guys we got playing with Shad, this year, one is a downhill guy and the other has great vision and he’ll make a lot of great runs for us. We do have a lot of diversity in our backs. Shad is a great nucleus of both. Shad can shake and run and he can run over people.”
Junior Jojo Gaiters provides the downhill running for this season’s backfield and sophomore Jarett Crockett is capable of providing the big play with his vision and speed.
Perhaps no position on offense is a bigger question mark than the receivers spot. Those question marks come more from the players that the Warriors lost than the ones who will line up this season. Gone are Ahmad Edwards, who set an AHSAA record with 125 catches last season, and Mo Edwards. Both have moved on to play college football and the Warriors also lost Alondae Vassar. Put their numbers together and they scored 29 touchdowns last season.
Replacing them will be a talented group that, for the most part lacks experience. Junior Michael Pettway was an explosive part of last year’s offense but senior Kyle Smoak, who had one start, is the only other receiver who has varsity experience as a Warrior.
“We’ll grow them up under fire,” Freeman said.
Pettway, who had three touchdown receptions last season, has a chance to be a special receiver for the Warriors. Smoak, who will line up at one of the inside receiver spots, had 15 catches in the spring game against Clay-Chalkville. Sophomore J.B. Mitchell is also slotted into a starting spot. Freeman said there is a battle going on at the other receiver spot. Seniors Chris Hopkins and A.J. Bonham are included in that battle. Sophomore Triston Woody should also be involved in the receiver rotation.
Tagovailoa expects big things from this group.
“We can show the state what we have and that there is more coming,” Tagovailoa. “(Last year’s receivers) were the ones who trained them. These guys fed off them, so we shouldn’t skip a beat.”
The Warriors are blessed with a pair of tackles headed for college football next season. Left tackle Amari Kight is a five-star recruit and a University of Alabama commitment. Anchoring the other side will be right tackle Jayme Simmons, a three-star recruit with a host of college offers.
“It’s big because those guys set the corner on everything,” Freeman said.
Center Seth MacMillan, a returning starter, is outstanding. Both of the guards – Mason Crain and Greg Inman – are first year starters.