HUTCHINSON, Kan. - Renewing a series after an 18-year hiatus, the Northeastern A&M Golden Norsemen open the 2008 season by traveling to Hutchinson, Kan., Saturday, for a 7 p.m. clash with the Hutchinson Community College Blue Dragons.
Although it's not a marquee game in the pairing of teams from the Southwest Junior College Football Conference and the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference, it is imperative that each of these teams get off on a winning note.
Coach Rob Green's Golden Norsemen lost five straight games after opening with five wins last season. NEO finished fifth in the SWJCFC with a 1-5 record and a 4-5 overall mark.
“This is an important game for us because we are a young team and we've got to get in the habit of winning,” Green said. “But it's always hard opening on the road because 38 of our players are freshmen and they've never experienced an overnight trip like this.
“After all, it disrupts the routine these guys have been in the past 18 days of sleeping in the dorm, eating in the cafeteria and practicing on the practice field,” Green said. “We have a rigid routine that they go through during a road trip and it takes some adjusting.”
Second year head coach Rion Rhoades returned 11 starters and 21 lettermen from a Blue Dragon team that finished fifth in the KJCCC with a 2-5 record. Hutchinson posted a 2-5 overall mark.
The two Blue Dragons victories were a 35-12 win over Highland in Hutchinson and a 13-9 victory at Independence to end the regular season.
“Now we'll get to see as a coaching staff just how much learning has taken place since we started last spring,” Green said. “With a true freshman starting quarterback job, it will be important for us to come out and establish some consistency in our execution.
“We struggled with that at times during our preseason scrimmage at Coffeyville, but now we've got to be more fluid in running our plays,” Green said. “We don't want to beat ourselves with bad plays.
Freshman Barrett Ahrberg (6-1, 195 of Cushing) won the starting quarterback job in competition with three other freshmen.
“Barrett has a firm grasp of our offensive scheme and he does a good job of executing it,” Green said. “But he is a freshman and he's got to get past that ‘deer caught in the headlights look' because this is for real.”
Sophomore Jeremiah Sampson (5-8, 175 of Coweta) returns to solidify the Norse ground game at tailback. Sampson ranked second on the team with 330 yards on 44 carries in six games. He also caught four passes for 13 yards.
Freshmen Dominik Williams (5-8, 170 of Ardmore), D. J. Monroe (5-11, 190 of Lake Highlands, Texas) and Cardel Clemens (6-0, 200 of Glenpool) will provide depth at running back.
“Operating out of the ‘no huddle' offense, it will be important for us to communicate well with Barrett,” Green said. “So we'll alternate running backs or receivers to get plays in and keep our offense fresh.”
Starting at the three receiver positions are redshirts Colton Cleft (6-0, 180 of Enid) and Don Hawkins (6-4, 185 of Tulsa Lincoln Christian) along with freshman Alonzo Adams (5-11, 186 of Jenks).
“We're going to try and establish a balance between the run and the pass,” Green said. “We'll use the run to set up our passing game and then take what their defense gives us.”
“But the strength of our offense will depend on our offensive line,” Green said. “We think we've got four quality returnees to go with freshman all-stater Ryan McCaul at center. We just need Jeremy (offensive tackle Jeremy Bean) to get back after banging his right knee in practice last week.”
Bean (6-5, 300 of Broken Bow) and veteran Logan Clair (6-5, 301 of Mustang) will start at tackles with sophomores Levi Adcock (6-5, 290 of Claremore-Sequoyah) and Jordan Karriman (6-4, 290 of Grove) at guards and McCaul (6-4, 300 of Moore) in the middle.
Four sophomores and a freshman comprise the defensive front for the Golden Norse.
“Because we're faster and quicker on defense than we were last year, we'll use a lot more stunts and blitzes to try and keep them guessing,” Green said. “We feel like we can put some pressure on the opposition pretty quick.”
Veteran Michael Billingsley (6-3, 220 of Oklahoma City Southeast) and freshman Jason Fitch (6-3, 250 of Oklahoma City Star Spencer) anchor the end positions with sophomores John White (6-3, 280 of Moore) and Terrill Jimoh (6-0, 260 of Tulsa Union) at tackles.
Billingsley is a transfer from Panhandle State in Goodwill while White ranked third on the team last season 49 unassisted tackles and 45 assists. Jimoh finished with eight solo tackles and 13 assists.
Sophomores Randy Tonche', Robert Spann and Johnny Row will start at linebackers for NEO. Tonche' (6-3, 220 of Sallisaw) made 33 solo tackles and 36 assists. Spann (6-1, 220 of St. Petersburg, Fla.) transferred from Mississippi Gulf Coast. Row (6-1, 225 of Claremore-Sequoyah) made 24 solo tackles and 30 assists as a freshman.
“Even though we only have one starter (Abraham Woodard) back in the secondary, I really feel like we're much improved,” Green said. “We've got athletic second teamers that are pushing to start and that makes for a very competitive situation.”
Woodard (5-11, 175 of Tulsa Memorial) is joined by redshirts Jarrod Fields (5-9, 180 of Ardmore), Jeffrey Johnson (6-0, 195 of Putnam City) and Nakeema Jones (5-11, 176 of Tulsa Central).
Last season Woodard recorded 20 unassisted tackles, 12 assists and three pass deflections.
The Golden Norse return to Robertson Field, Sept. 6, for a 7 p.m. non-conference clash with the Arkansas Baptist College Buffaloes.