Nitro coach Derek Midkiff talks to sophomore running back Brayden Underwood during Monday's practice.
The talk will be of advantages - perceived or otherwise - when neighboring rivals Nitro and Poca lock up in a prep football opener on Friday at Nitro.The host Wildcats, in fact, have a lot of attention surrounding their first two games because they're paired with two Putnam County squads (Poca, Hurricane).Putnam County students didn't report until Aug. 22, which was nearly two full weeks after Kanawha students came back for classes on Aug. 9, meaning Kanawha teams had almost no time for two-a-day workouts that have become a teaching staple for coaches in the preseason. Workouts began on Aug. 5.Still, Nitro coach Derek Midkiff has brushed off speculation that his team will be at a competitive disadvantage for its first two games."I don't know if it gives them an advantage or not,'' Midkiff said of facing the Dots this week. "Obviously, they had more opportunity to practice than us. But it's not an excuse we're going to use or the kids are going to use. It is what it is."With student-athletes, you have to be a student first and an athlete second. Whatever Kanawha County wanted to do to make them better students, we're going to live with and coach them up the best we can, and be the best team we're able to.''Poca coach Bob Lemley acknowledges the extra free time his squad had to develop, but said some of that bonus was washed away by extraordinarily heavy rains in August."It's been so unusual this year with the rain,'' Lemley said. "We did about normal [workouts] the first week, but since then the field we practice on has been just soaked like a swamp. We didn't get on the main field. It's soft, so we stayed off that."After the first week, we just started practicing in the evening ourselves, like we would have after school, and go longer hours to get the normal amount of hours in. We had to quit practicing for a few days in the morning because of the weather. We needed to have some sunshine hit the field.
"I think teams might have a little advantage if they went the full two weeks starting in the morning, but overall I don't think it makes much of a difference after a couple of weeks.''Another advantage Poca was thought to hold was the return of quarterback Jake Payne, a run-pass threat who would have been a third-year starter. However, Payne suffered an injury toward the end of baseball season and opted not to come out for football.That means the Dots' edge at quarterback was negated, since they're now going with Justin Stewart, a junior who didn't play football last year and a player who has never lined up at quarterback. Nitro's new signal caller is Tyler Barton, a baseball and basketball athlete who didn't play football the last two seasons.That could mean each team will try to exploit the new man under center on Friday, trying to disrupt the offense by applying all the pressure they can to the quarterbacks.
Midkiff said Nitro doesn't look at the situation that way."Coach Lemley has been coaching a long time,'' he said, "and does what he does and coaches what he knows. We're going to go about it as beating the system they're doing and not one or two kids.
"Who's playing quarterback doesn't matter. Defensively, our guys have their assignments and they've got to perform no matter who is quarterback, whether Jake Payne is playing or not. Go out there and do what they do. If we're better, it will work and if we're not, it won't.''Lemley expects some pressure from Nitro against Stewart."I'm sure they want to put some heat on him,'' Lemley said. "It's going to be a learning process for him. He's got some speed and he's got a decent arm. He has to learn his craft and be a quarterback."As they always say, right now things are fast for him. There's a lot going on. But once he gets more confident, he'll get better as he goes. He is a threat to run the ball. We're going to run him and we've got a couple of other guys.''Each team welcomes back a 1,000-yard rusher from last year, so there are no advantages to be held there.Poca features T.T. Loudin, who rushed for 1,080 yards and 12 touchdowns last season while missing one game, and Nitro leans on sophomore Brayden Underwood, who gained 1,015 yards with six TDs a year ago.
"We haven't thrown the ball all that much in our scrimmages,'' Midkiff said. "Everything was very vanilla what we were doing offensively and defensively. But it was no secret that [Underwood] was our workhorse last year as a freshman. It doesn't change with him being a sophomore. The biggest thing with him has been muscles. He got rid of a lot of that baby fat he had last year because he was a kid, and I think he matured a lot over the winter.''Midkiff said last Saturday's 47-0 loss to Princeton during the Mountain State Athletic Conference Grid-o-rama didn't faze his players because the Wildcats took it as a learning experience for a certain group of players."We did a lot better our first scrimmage,'' Midkiff said. "We didn't go into that [Grid-o-rama] to win anything other than to get specific guys some extra looks. A lot of our guys were out of position. We were seeing guys in certain positions to give them certain looks. So I'm not worried about that at all."I don't put much stock in scrimmages. Scrimmages don't matter. Now it matters.''Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or email@example.com.