RACHEL — The stretch run of the 2018 season forced veteran North Marion High coach Daran Hays and his staff to ponder: Do we need to change?
The Huskies were on the fringes of the Class AA playoff picture midway through that season, but the team’s offense sputtered in the last few weeks, prompting Hays, ever willing to swallow pride and ego for the good of the program, to question his team’s style, malleability and overall schematic makeup.
But whatever doubts that loomed in the aftermath of the 2018 season have since been expunged by the program’s 2019 campaign. The Huskies ticked off the most single-season wins since 2001 with a 7-3 regular season and a Class AA playoff berth behind a retooled offensive system that will once again take center stage in 2020 as the team’s calling card.
“We’ve dabbled,” said Hays, who enters his 12th season as NMHS head coach this fall, “but I felt like we really kind of found our identity or our niche so to speak last year as we started into the true RPO game as far as the run-pass option and placing defenders into run-pass conflicts and then reading them. It’s essentially like the triple option in football.”
The Huskies’ steadfast adoption of an advanced run-pass option spread system under offensive coordinator Mark Yoho spurred the team’s mini leap and raised their ceiling. The Hays-Yoho partnership had used the RPO game in bits and pieces in seasons prior, but never to the full-blown degrees they did as the 2019 season went on, where the system birthed a Huskies offense with greater dynamism and greater dimension as it averaged 365.2 yards and 30.9 points a game in the regular season.
The offense was the perfect fit for the ‘19 Huskies. Senior quarterback Gunner Murphy grew into the ideal field general, one with the brain power to read the defense on the fly and then the running ability and arm talent to react accordingly. Murphy, who garnered collegiate offers for his play last season, led the Big 10 Conference in passing with 2,374 yards and 25 TDs while also rushing for 265 yards and four more touchdowns.
At Murphy’s disposal were a litany of playmaking options in game-breaking receivers Tariq Miller and Jahkari Mesidor, big-play target Ethan Raines, slot option Ty Thorne and a 1-2 running back pairing of Ricky Newbrough and Hunter Kuhn.
Miller and Kuhn are the only of those skilled position players back for NMHS in 2020 with the rest departing as members of a 12-player ‘19 graduating class, and Murphy’s graduation will toss rising junior Brody Hall into the starting quarterback role through which everything in the offense depends on.
“Obviously, the one thing that everybody is going to elude to is quarterback play — that’s what’s everybody is going to ask, that’s where everybody’s mind goes,” Hays said, “and while you’re not going to truly know until the bullets start flying, Brody has been in the system for two years. Gunner did a great job of it, but we have the guys to still do a great job of it now. A lot of that is going to come on Brody, but again in this (practice) setting, he’s done really well.”
Hall got plenty of reps running the show last year as North Marion’s starting JV quarterback, and he saw snippets of varsity action in relief of Murphy in which he completed 5-of-8 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for another 63 yards on 10 attempts.
Hall will assuredly experience a few growing pains at some point, but he’ll be buoyed by a surrounding offense that would be better categorized as reloading than rebuilding. Miller, a Class AA all-state second team pick as a sophomore last season, is a 1-on-1 nightmare for defenses. He has the speed and elusiveness to make plays in space, is tremendous at adjusting to and making plays on balls in the air, and has sort of an uncanny knack to even turn your run-of-the-mill routes — hitches, comebacks, in-breakers — into huge plays after the catch. He led the Big 10 with 937 receiving yards on just 41 catches (22.9 yds/catch) and snagged 12 TDs.
“Tariq is a problem,” Hays said. “He’s versatile and we have to find ways to get him the ball, especially in space.”
The threats extend beyond Miller, however. Garrett Conaway, an absolute beast at defensive end, figures to be more involved as a pass catcher this season from his tight end spot, and Kuhn and rising sophomore Gavan Lemley will again form a 1-2 running back punch. The offensive line, armed with returning starters in seniors Chase Duckworth, Jake Cochran and Brock Troy and plenty of other ready contributors — Jessie Wade, Kaden Hovatter, Jarrett Reed — may actually be the offense’s most solidified position group from top to bottom.
“As far as scheme, we’re fairly similar with the exception of adding to the RPO game a little bit,” Hays said. “It’s (about) the personnel, being able to flex our tight ends out into the slot, getting Tariq in multiple spots, things like that. O-line-wise, we probably have better depth than we had in the past. Receiver-wise, we have a lot of depth, a lot of competition. At running back, we have a great 1-2 punch with Lemley and Kuhn and then a couple of young guys like Brody Hess to give them a break.
“I’m really optimistic as far as where we’re at athletically.”
“Our linemen, they’re fast, their steps are good and they know what they’re doing. They work pretty well together,” said Conaway, who caught six passes for 76 yards in 2019. “Overall, we’re a fast-paced team so I feel like we’ll fare pretty well against teams that are a little slower or even ones that are about at our speed.”
The same logic applies to North’s defense, where Steven Harbert will enter his second season as the defensive coordinator and play caller.
The offensive line’s depth bodes well for the defensive front, and Conaway and Hovatter are legit run penetrators and pass rushers on the edges. Troy, a senior with plenty of playing experience will lead the linebacker group, where Tyler Curry and Hall are among other returnees who saw snaps last season. The secondary is a bit rickety after the graduation losses of Mesidor, Raines, Trent Hlusko and Jacob Clevenger, although it remains to be seen in just how many games against a ground-bound Big 10 that becomes a factor.
“(Defensively) I’d say it’s about keeping a group mindset; we have to do this as a group, not just one person individually,” said Conaway, a Class AA all-state second team selection at defensive end in 2019. “Yeah, we got some real good players at different positions, but we have to work together as a group to accomplish our big goal.”
“I don’t want to make any bold predictions,” Hays said of the Huskies’ overall 2020 outlook, “but for a group that graduated 12 where everybody expects you to kind of fall to the basement so to speak, I kind of know going in we have a chance...we got some dudes.”