High School Sports

Sweet 16: Deep, experienced Rock Hill Northwestern in at No. 7

Northwestern fifth-year head coach Kyle Richardson says he doesn’t have a superstar, but he has enough talent that the Trojans could be pretty good.
Northwestern fifth-year head coach Kyle Richardson says he doesn’t have a superstar, but he has enough talent that the Trojans could be pretty good. bmccormick@heraldonline.com

When Kyle Richardson first took a look at Rock Hill Northwestern’s 2015 football roster, one thing immediately jumped out at him.

“This is the first year we haven’t had a superstar,” said Richardson, now in his fifth year as the Trojans’ coach. “We don’t have anybody who’s an all-state player coming back for the first time in five or six years, maybe longer than that.”

That doesn’t really bother Richardson. Northwestern – ranked No. 7 in the Observer’s preseason Sweet 16 poll – still has a wealth of talent and experience in the lineup to make a run at its fifth state title and first since 2013.

The Trojans – who finished 9-4 last year, and advanced to the second round of the South Carolina AAAA state playoffs – have 17 players returning who started all or part of last season.

That, along with depth at most positions, has allowed Richardson to shift some players around to strengthen both Northwestern’s offense and defense.

“The competition is making people take their game to another level just to keep up,” Richardson said. “We tell every player at every spot, competition is always good – it’ll make you better, or you’ll get out of the way.

“We’ve got some different personnel settings that we can put together, and take advantage of what their strengths are and what our opponents’ weaknesses are.”

Richardson hasn’t decided who will take over for graduated Dupree Hart at quarterback. The competition is between juniors Will Hagood, last year’s junior varsity starter, and transfer Gage Maloney, who threw for 2,077 yards and 13 touchdowns last year at Charleston’s James Island Charter.

But either will allow the Trojans to go back to a more-pure version of their “Air Raid” offense.

“Dupree was different, but it took some major tweaking of our system to make it work for him,” Richardson said. “These two are 6-foot-2 and 6-1, and they’re in a dogfight right now, competing for the starting job. We’ll be able to go back to our typical ‘stand back there and throw it around.’ We want them to put it in other people’s hands and let them make the plays.”

Whoever gets the starting job will have plenty of targets – Richardson said this season’s corps of receivers is the deepest he’s ever had.

That depth has allowed Richardson to shift three of his part-time starters from 2014 – senior Davion Blake, and juniors Logan Rudolph and D.J. Agurs – to defense, which returned five starters.

“We’ve got eight receivers that can go on the field at the four positions, and not have a dropoff,” Richardson said. “We’ve never had that before. We’ve had two or three good ones and a stud, but there’s always been a huge dropoff in the second tier.”

The one question left to be answered is how well all the changes will work, and how all the newcomers will perform once the season begins. Northwestern opens Aug. 21 at Byrnes, which beat the Trojans twice last year – in their nationally televised season opener, and in the state playoffs.

“You never know what kind of football team you’ve got until it gets real,” Richardson said. “Our No. 1 goal right now is to win the season opener.

“I don’t know how good we are, or how good we can be. I do know we’ve got a good group of kids working hard, and they’re all competing their tails off.

“As a head coach, what else can you ask for at this point?”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer