Last season, Sanderson coach Ben Kolstad brought up several freshmen because he knew what his program’s future would hold.
He could only prepare for the blow that came with graduating the 2015 class, seniors who included the Spartans’ leading rusher, passer and tackler.
“We’re going to be starting a lot of sophomores – a lot of sophomores,” Kolstad said. “But those kids are physically gifted, and they’re good students, so we expect them to contribute.”
Some of Sanderson’s key returners and rising seniors have guided the youth this summer and have been impressed by the effort.
Nose tackle Daeqwan Bailey, who recovered four fumbles last season, expects that because of the buy-in from the underclassmen, the Spartans can improve last season’s 3-8 mark. They won just one game outside of the Cap-8.
“In my personal opinion, I don’t think people were working as hard as they should have last year; the record showed that,” said Bailey, who completed additional defensive drills after workouts wrapped last week. It was his way of setting an example for the group who will play on varsity turf for perhaps the first time Aug. 21.
Sanderson opens at home against Knightdale. “Whatever we do, they do because we’re seniors. If we go hard, they’ll go hard. If we finish hard, they’ll finish hard, but if we’re slacking, they’ll slack.”
I don’t care if we’re losing, I don’t care if we’re winning, we need to fight every down.
Sanderson defensive lineman Brad Hughes
But the youth also resulted in some uncertainty on the field. Leading up to the first day of official football practice, Kolstad said many holes remained.
He expects to run multiple offensive and defensive schemes and to have the ability to pass the ball more than in recent years.
Last season, the Spartans threw just seven passing touchdowns. Graduated quarterback Jeremiah Bellissimo was responsible for five of those.
On the ground, Sanderson ran in 17 touchdowns behind running back Cole Nigro. He finished his senior season with 613 rushing yards last year. Nigro also led the Spartans with 71 tackles, seven for loss.
Kolstad wants to be able to rush the ball and play good defense this season. Many of his valuable returners, seniors with three or four years of experience on varsity, play on defense, including linemen Brad Hughes and Thomas Smith.
The last time Sanderson was in the playoffs was 2013, when Fayetteville Jack Britt routed the Spartans in the first round.
The Cap-8 hasn’t gotten any less competitive, with an experienced Wake Forest squad having a stronghold on the conference.
“I don’t care if we’re losing, I don’t care if we’re winning, we need to fight every down,” Hughes said. “I think everybody should expect to see a team that’s maybe not always going to trick people but everybody’s trying to put in the effort all the time. I think everybody should expect a team that’s going to fight every down.”
Contributors: NT Daeqwan Bailey, S Ryan Baldy, DT Brad Hughes, OLB Jordan Logan, LB Alim Mcniell, DB Trent Pennix, C Thomas Smith, WR Jared Tintsman
Expected team strength: Commitment.
Question mark: Can youth adjust quickly to varsity and to Cap-8 competition?
Player they’ll miss: Two-way player Cole Nigro. He led the Spartans in rushing yards and tackles last season.
The Number: 12 – Wins in the last five years compared with 44 losses.
The quote: Koldstad on competing in the Cap-8: “Young kids are growing up fast, but physically, I feel like we can compete. I feel like we can compete with everyone. Wake Forest has a big defensive line, but I think we can match up with them well in some other areas.”
Game to watch: Aug. 28 vs Fuquay-Varina. This is a newer Sanderson opponent, and it’ll be interesting to see how this young group of Spartans match up against a seemingly even group.
Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
Last five years
2014: 3-8 (2-5)
2013: 6-6 (4-3), 4AA first round
2012: 2-9 (1-6)
2011: 0-11 (0-7)
2010: 1-10 (1-5)