As the most experienced returnees from last year's 5-8 Mount Pleasant football team, Deon Pillsbury and Dezmond Leach haven't disappointed.
"They play fast, play hard and just get after it," said Michael Johns. "They're just fun to coach."
Through the first six weeks of the season, the senior duo has stepped up and put up good numbers to lead the team defensively.
Pillsbury, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound linebacker, led the team with 73 tackles heading into last Friday's game against Hickory Ridge, while Leach, a defensive end, had added 55 tackles.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Leach, who also sees time on the offense at tight end, led the team with three sacks and seven fumble recoveries, which Johns said also led the state unofficially.
Having been two of the most productive players for the Tigers last year, Leach and Pillsbury picked up right where they left off.
"We expected it," Johns said about their play. "They both worked hard in the offseason."
Pillsbury was second on the team in tackles last season, behind now-departed middle linebacker Christian Cannon, with 101, while Leach finished last year fifth on the team with 78.
The experience Pillsbury and Leach garnered by starting in 2010 has paid off on the field.
Pillsbury said he's better able to read offense and make quicker decisions.
The 17-year-old added that he's able to get so many tackles because he doesn't give up on plays.
"It doesn't mean you make the tackle every play, but you're going to at least be there helping," said Pillsbury.
His coach agreed.
"He's just a great athlete," said Johns. "He has a great motor. He always gives it 100 percent."
Pillsbury, who's also a track athlete, has the endurance to chase his opponents.
He also credits his productivity to the Tiger coaching staff for helping him with their defensive schemes, especially with the Tigers' blitz patterns.
Pillsbury said the work he put in during the offseason - watching film and working out with his fellow linebackers and his track teammates in the 4x400 relay - is paying off.
"I feel like you get out what you put in," said Pillsbury. "And I feel like I've put in a lot."
On the other hand, Leach credits his defensive success to his long arms, which he said he uses to his advantage.
That may have something to do with his recovering so many fumbles to start the year, but so does his focus on stopping opponents even when other linemen won't.
"I always run toward the ball," said Leach. "You never know what's going to happen. ... No play is over until that whistle blows."
Leach, who had six receptions for 103 yards on offense before last Friday, said he enjoys playing on both sides of the ball, although defense is his passion.
"I've been playing it my whole life," said Leach.
The 17-year-old said he tries to be a leader for the defense.
"When it comes to game time, I like to get everybody hyped," said Leach. "If I get 10 other players excited like I am, it'll be a good game."
Leach said last year's seniors helped him out a lot as he moved up to varsity, so he wants to do the same for his younger teammates.
Mount Pleasant started 2-2 in its nonconference slate, defeating North Stanly and West Stanly by at least four touchdowns each. But the Tigers had a hard time in their first two South Piedmont Conference games, dropping both to Cox Mill and Northwest Cabarrus.
"It's been a heartbreaking year for us," said Leach. "We've been in nearly every game."
"We're better than what our record shows," he said. "Every game, one play here, one play there has really changed the game."
Johns said the defense, which was giving up fewer than 20 points per game before last Friday, has played well, aside from their 35-19 loss to the Trojans two weeks ago.
The offense, led by quarterback Alan McDonald, receiver Andy Hunt and running back Junior Gonzales, has also been solid, although it has seen its ups and downs, said Johns.
Despite their early-season struggles, however, Johns knows his team has a lot of play for.
"We're still working hard and pushing forward," said Johns "And that's all we can ask."
Leach said the team's goal is to make it back to the postseason, where last year the Tigers upset higher-seed Southern Guilford to reach the second round of the 3A playoffs.
"It's a new season - you're 0-0," said Leach, explaining that his team will have to come together and finish games strongly to reach that objective. "Once you reach that, all other games don't matter."
Pillsbury said Mount Pleasant is ready to leave its struggles.
"People say, 'You can't really know what it feels to win unless you know how it feels to love,'" said Pillsbury. "And we know how losing feels, and it's the worst feeling, so I think we're going to turn it around."