The natural tendency when telling the story of the 2018 Thompson High defense is to begin with the players no longer on the roster.
Last year’s senior class on the defensive side, which included linebackers Jalen Rayam and K.J. Robertson, safety Myles Brown and defensive tackle Mackie McNeal, was certainly a special group. They played a big part on a team that won its first 12 games, claimed a region title and came within a game of playing in the AHSAA Class 7A title. But their absence is only the first part of the story for this year’s defense.
“I think there is a time you talk about it and you challenge them,” said Thompson head coach Mark Freeman. “In a program, all you can do is start filling spots. Who is going to replace them? But, we’re done with the talking about who we had. Now, we’re moving on with who we’ve got and preparing them to be the best they can be. They understand.”
The good news is that the Warriors have the pieces to be strong on the defensive side. As always, it begins up front.
Defensive end Eric Mizell is a returning starter and should have a big year. The 6-foot-2, 275-pound senior is drawing attention from college recruiters. Senior Will Hoffman, who Freeman said is “just a fighter”, contributed last season, as did senior Aubrey Glidewell at nose tackle. Glidewell is part of a deep position, that also includes sophomore K’Marion Hambright and junior Damion Ugbo.
“We have some depth there,” Freeman said.
Senior Will Conner blossomed into a big-time player in his first varsity season. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound UAB commit had 137 tackles with 89 solo tackles and 16 tackles for loss. He will be called on to provide leadership for this defense. Other contributors at linebackers should include junior Owen May, senior Gage Motes and senior Chris Hector.
Freeman also looked to the future when talking about his team’s linebackers.
“We got two great freshmen linebackers (Jeremiah Alexander and Jax Van Zandt) that practice with us every day,” Freeman said. “They’re not ready to start but they could down the road at linebacker. They got to get some experience. They practice with us and may get some reps in certain games.”
The most experienced group on the defensive side is probably in the secondary, even though there is also some promising young players. Seniors Jalen Bustamante and D.J. Douglas were important members of the 2017 secondary. The pair combined for 90 tackles, four interceptions and 15 pass deflections last season. Senior Tyreke Bivins, who had 30 tackles and 11 pass deflections as a junior, is also an experienced defensive back.
The safeties will be sophomore Sam Holmes and senior Elijah Clayton.
“The biggest thing is building up our kids on defense,” Freeman said. “We got to fill some spots on defense quick. I told (defensive coordinator) Shawn DeFoor that we have to do some things on defense until we find some guys to make some plays. Sometimes that ignites you.”