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Football Preview: New Palestine

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NEW PALESTINE – A year ago, New Palestine’s football team spent the fall rewriting the school’s record books while going 13-1 and advancing to the semistate.

If coach Kyle Ralph has his way, that was just the beginning.

The Dragons aren’t necessarily looking for an encore. They’re looking to build off the foundation that was laid a year ago in a “transition year” to the new style, program and emphasis Ralph brought to NPHS.

A year ago, the team was getting ready for its third head coach in three years. Now, it’s time to build.

“The major focus is that it’s now time to start building a program,” said Ralph, the fifth head coach in New Palestine’s football history. “It’s different than a transition year. Expectations rise, the commitment level has to rise, the effort has to rise.

“We set a pretty high bar in Year 1 with 13 wins. Whether we have that success this year, I don’t know, but the kids understood what it meant to now begin the shift into creating an actual program and a legacy and a brand of New Palestine football. That’s something I’m really proud of, that they’ve carried that torch through this offseason.”

On the field, that brand is an uptempo, no-huddle, spread offense that mixes the read option with an aerial game that features multiple receivers. On the other side of the ball, it’s foundation an aggressive, attacking defense that allowed more than 14 points just twice in 2013.

Six full-time starters return on that defense – including all but one starting linebacker from 2013 and three members of the secondary. Among those returning are school single-season sacks recordholder Noah Grable (18 sacks) and 2013 HHC interceptions leader Garrett Kuhn (4 interceptions).

On offense, several new faces will dot the lineup, but will be joined by several players with significant experience – lineman Andrew Yazel, receivers Kuhn and Duke Blackwell, tight end Grable and returning 1,200-yard rusher James Young.

“It’s a huge deal to have that many guys with that much experience coming back, it’s great,” Ralph said. “Offensively, we don’t have very many core starters coming back, but because of the situations of the games last year, we got a lot of young guys varsity reps. We’ve gotten to see a lot of those younger kids who are now going to be juniors or seniors play varsity football.

“We have a load of not just good players coming back, but strong players, smart players and really very good leaders. I’m very pleased with how this senior class has risen to the challenge and accepted leadership roles you don’t have as a junior.”

The Dragons return a significant amount of experience on defense, led by a linebacking corps that features returning senior starters Gabe Estes and Sterling Curran and junior Joe Izbicki, who saw a significant amount of varsity time a year ago. Curran is the leading returning tackler (97), and had 11 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 2013. Estes – who stands 6-1, 226 pounds – had 76 stops and six tackles for loss. Add to that group Grable, who could also see time at both linebacker and defensive end in the 3-3-5 “Stack” defense the Dragons plan to employ this year, and the Dragons have a fierce middle of the defense.

Grable helped rewrite the school’s defensive record book a year ago with 18 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. His 85 tackles are third-most among returners.

A year ago, Ralph said he’d put his linebacking corps up against any in the state. Last week, he said he still would.

“We had great success with those guys last year. A lot of that was their attention to detail and the intensity they brought to every practice. Their weight room strength is incredible across the board. Our three core linebackers put up 1,200 pounds on the three main lifts across the board. Those are insane numbers,” Ralph said.

“Last year ended on a sour note and a decent part of that was they did make mistakes and they didn’t play their best game. For a lot of them, it’s been motivation. It’s been a snap back to reality. They’ve been hungry this offseason and done a tremendous job. I’m looking forward to seeing how good that group can be. We’re very deep at linebacker. Noah, Gabe, Sterling, Joe Izbicki, those guys are doing a tremendous job right now. They’re super-talented. They get along well, they communicate well.”

In the backfield, there is also a nice mixture of players with experience and players matriculating to the varsity. Junior Nick Brickens had 93 tackles and two interceptions a year ago. Kuhn is coming off a year with four interceptions, and cornerback Chaz Hill joins those two in entering their third years of significant varsity experience.

Add to the mix senior Kyle Zehner, sophomore Adam Kincaid, junior Duke Blackwell and senior Jeff Wilcher – the team’s Special Teams Player of the Year a season ago – and the Dragons have plenty of depth and experience.

“There are a lot of kids who have really stepped up and done a tremendous job who are varsity, battle-tested and really know what it takes to win football games,” Ralph said, calling the DBs “a talented group.” In addition to being the head coach and offensive coordinator, Ralph is also the defensive backs’ position coach.

Up front, the Dragons are young in the trenches, but strong – much like a year ago, when a group without much varsity experience developed throughout the year and took control by the end of the season. This year, both the offensive and defensive lines are projected to have several underclass starters.

On the defensive side, 5-8, 259-pound junior Thaddeus Muse looks to plug the middle, with Grable and Yazel at end. On offense, Yazel will likely center a line that features juniors Matt Moeller, Michael Woodall, Nick Derheimer and sophomore David Judy. Senior Trent Mahaney also was a starter a year ago before an injury in the final regular season game.

“We are already better than we were last year up front, and we currently have four juniors and a sophomore on the offensive line, with not a ton of experience but a lot of knowledge,” Ralph said. “They’ve worked hard. They understand what we want from them, and they really take a lot of pride in what they do, which is really important for guys in the trenches. It’s not a glory job, but you’ve got to love working with the guy next to you, you’ve got to love the dirty work and being physical. I’m pretty confident in our guys up front, if we stay healthy, we can be very good on both sides of the ball.”

Where the Dragons have a number of experienced returnees is at the skill positions. Stepping in at the quarterback spot is junior Alex Neligh, who has spent two years matriculating for the position as the quarterback of the Dragons’ freshman and JV teams. He saw a bit of action on Friday nights a year ago in spelling starter Blake Luker while Luker was setting the school’s total offense records.

Neligh stepped into his new varsity role this offseason and showed it well during last week’s scrimmage against Scecina, completing 4-of-7 passes and throwing three for TDs.

“He’s very assertive, makes good decisions with the football,” Ralph said, calling Neligh a great natural leader. “I talked to him as the summer has gone on, and told him ‘you don’t have to be Blake.’ Blake didn’t have to be anyone before him. There are no expectations. The expectations are to go out and manage a football game and not make mistakes. If he throws for 1,500 yards, minimizes mistakes and we win games, I’d be just as happy as if he throws for 3,000, minimizes mistakes and wins football games.

“He’s transformed his body in the weight room. He’s one of the strongest kids we have. He’s a very good runner, good vision, physical, and he can throw the ball tremendously well.

Hill, who threw two touchdown passes in the scrimmage against Scecina, gives the Dragons a veteran backup. He started several games as a sophomore, and has been a starter at defensive back as a junior.

At running back, Young returns as the feature back. He emerged in that role a year ago and ran for 1,250 yards and 11 touchdowns. At 6-0, 208, Young brings strength and speed to the position. He ran for 71 yards and two scores in the scrimmage.

“He’s a tremendous competitor. He brings an unbelievable fire and passion with him,” Ralph said of Young. “He’s polite, nice, outstanding in the classroom, great in the hallways, does all the right things outside of school. He’s just a good all-around kid. It’s amazing how those kids are also your good football players, and he’s a really good one. We’re looking for some huge things out of him this season. As long as he stays healthy, I think he’s primed for a really magical season.”

There’s also a lot of depth at the position – Curran had 101 yards in the scrimmage, Estes was the team’s goal-line back a year ago, Brickens saw time at running back in 2013, while Izbicki and Kincaid both have significant experience running the ball at the JV and freshmen levels.

There’s also depth at receiver, where the team graduates its career receptions and yards leader Tyler Walden. Blackwell had 266 yards on 17 catches a year ago, and was described as dynamic, physical and with tremendous hands, as well as being the team’s fastest player. Kuhn is a big target at 6-3. He caught 10 passes for 136 yards a year ago and Ralph called him “one of the great leaders on our team.” Grable, who can play a tight end/slot position similar to how the Colts once used Dallas Clark, had 273 yards receiving a year ago. Ralph said he is a “huge mismatch.” Kincaid, a sophomore, has also become a weapon and is a “major explosive play threat,” according to Ralph. Also, look for junior Logan Greene, Wilcher and Izbicki to give the Dragons a lot of options at wideout.

“We’ve got a lot of kids that can play good, winning football as we try to keep people fresh and rotate,” Ralph said.

Special teams saw the emergence of two kickers who were freshmen – Kyle Barton and Spencer Corey. Barton was strong on extra points, while Corey hit two critical field goals in the 27-14 regional victory over Chatard. Both are back again.

As for the season, the Dragons have set lofty goals.

“Our seniors and leadership council put together their goals,” Ralph said. Mine are very much in line – keep the (HHC traveling) Helmet where it belongs. We think that’s here. We want to keep the Rail. That’s a major point of pride for our kids, with the rivalry game and everything that means. The conference championship, if we retain the Helmet, will be ours. We want to be sectional champion. That’s the goal for any season. I don’t know where we’ll go. We’re only guaranteed 10 shots at this. After Game 10, only the best of the best are left. However far we can go, I’ll be proud of our kids regardless. I think we’ve got the chance to do some really, really great things this year.

“I’ll be proud of these young men no matter what the outcome is, but I know they want to compete for championships on a major level. If they keep the intensity up, they’re going to be able to do that.”

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