Thompson Defense Remains Dangerous Despite Elite Departures
It was a banner year for the Thompson Warriors’ defense in 2021. The staunch unit allowed just 7.1 points per game, scored a touchdown in seven different games, recorded five shutouts, amassed a team record 160 tackles for loss and a state record 92 punts forced. For their final act, they forced the Central-Phenix City Red Devils into four turnovers and held them scoreless until the third quarter of the championship game.
In the weeks that followed, reality set in on Coach Shawn Defoor as the seniors began to move on. Multi-year starters like Jeremiah Alexander, Jax Van Zandt, Trevor Hardy, Nate Riddle and Karston Haywood were no longer in the meeting rooms.
“I️ think everybody was in shock because you don’t realize it until everybody is out of there,” said Defoor. “Then it becomes overbearing for the guys who are coming back and they can get frustrated. So you try not to put too much pressure on them right after the season.”
As the team began to turn the page, the focus centered on the new identity they could form.
“So now you have to transition and I think it’s harder on the coaches than the players because your expectations become a little unrealistic,” said Defoor. “You have to understand we may not be seven points a game or shut everybody out, but we can always uphold our standards: what’s the lowest we can hold each opponent every week?”
Now that standard has been raised, the Warriors defense will be relied on early in the season to give a young offense time to find their playmakers.
“More especially this year than any year we’ve had recently, we’re going to lean on our defense early in the season,” said Mark Freeman. “Hopefully they can stand up and keep the game where we can gain some experience on offense and get our kids some confidence. They’ve been a strength for us the last four or five years, in our championship years we’ve had really good defenses.”
Thompson’s first unit on defense is as good as any starting lineup in the state and they’re looking to put pressure on opponents starting at the line of scrimmage.
That’s where you find the defensive line group led by four year starter and Clemson commit, Peter Woods. Woods headlines a group with surprising depth that’s a great sign to defensive line coach Woodrow Briggs.
“We have a chance to have some really good depth that we haven’t had in a while. Six to eight guys who can potentially help us if they keep growing,” says Briggs. “The guys have rallied around Peter and he’s a big reason we have a chance to have the depth we have.”
Coach Briggs is also excited about another senior on the line, Elijah Williams. Williams made some big plays last year penetrating offensive lines from the middle and stuffing runs. Usually playing over 300 pounds he has cut his weight improving his conditioning and quickness.
“He's put in the work this off-season, coming into this season he’s 290 lbs and he’s moving better,” says Briggs. “He’s changed his mindset, he’s starting to get it and I️ would be really shocked if he’s not very dominant this year.”
Matthew Heard, Caleb Ballard and Dylan Campbell all have the ability to start while JC McCurry and Dylan Willis will provide quality depth as well.
The linebacker corps lost three multi-year starters, but still look to be in good shape with the return of Seth Hampton and Jake Ivie. Both have started games several years and combined for 23 tackles for loss last year. Their experience gives new linebackers coach Taylor Burgess peace of mind.
“We’ve had guys like Seth Hampton and Jake Ivie who were able to be molded by those guys from last year,” said Burgess. “So the transition has been really good as far as them stepping up into those roles.”
They’ll join fellow senior Kelby Taylor putting together a versatile group that’s tough at the line of scrimmage, but can cover in space as well.
Guys like Jayden Davis, Vini Pires and Trent Cheatom make up the second group with Davis and Pires getting valuable reps last year.
The secondary was perhaps hit the hardest by off-season departures. Tre’Quon Fegans, Trevor Hardy and Karston Haywood all finished school while A’mon Lane transferred to Moody High School with his family.
That being said, the Warriors still have one of the most skilled starting secondaries around featuring four year starter and Alabama commit Tony Mitchell. Anquon Fegans and Kaleb Harris also return with starting experience at safety.
Mitchell will lock down one side of the field at corner, but Thompson turns to senior Jasiah Ward to man the other corner spot. Defensive backs coach Jordan Robertson is focused on Ward’s continued growth throughout his final season.
“He’s a kid that’s dealt with a lot of adversity, he’s overcome a lot of things on and off the field. He’s earned a chance to prove what he can do, the only thing he needs to do now is execute, be comfortable and play confident,” says Robertson. “We want to grow throughout the season, we want to look back through the season and say he’s a totally different player.”
Fegans and Harris have had great off-seasons as college coaches are really starting to take notice of the talented, young safeties. Harris surprised and started as a sophomore last year while Fegans got looks as a freshman.
“Kaleb early on had started some games and beat some guys out. As the year went on guys stole some reps back from him, he saw less and less towards the end of the year and it rubbed him the wrong way,” says Defoor. “So he hit the off-season and worked his tail off. One of the biggest transitions I’ve seen from one year to the next.”
Robertson knows Fegans has what it takes, many of his brothers have gone on to play college ball and once Anquon comes into his own he will hawk the ball with the best of them.
“I believe he’s locked in, got to continue to grow and mature, but that just comes with age,” says Robertson. “Rangy kid who can play the back end, that middle field safety position. Knows how to break on the ball and break on that reception area. Really good open field tackler.”
The Warriors return with elite talent at every level of the defense once again. Putting up numbers against this starting 11 will be difficult, but how they develop the underclassmen will determine whether or not they remain in the state’s top spot.