Warriors Ditch Offseason Rat Poison, Begin Defense of 2nd Title
No one is immune from rat poison. The poison, in this case, being the outside praise and predictions of a successful second title defense. Mark Freeman and his staff aren’t shying away from it and use it as a chance to highlight the depth the program has built over the last several years.
“We have to address it with our kids. Other people's expectations can’t be higher than ours. We want to be the leaders,” says Freeman. “If you’re honest with yourself, we won the state championship and we’ve got a lot of defensive guys coming back so I️ think we deserve to be ranked no. 1–if you believe in preseason rankings.”
“There are great players on this team, we’re not hiding from that, but there are a lot of good players that aren’t being mentioned. If it was me, I’d have a chip on my shoulder.”
It’s also an opportunity to teach a lesson about preparation and keeping your focus each time you hit the field. Thompson hasn’t lost since 2019, but last year’s state championship still hangs in Shawn Defoor’s mind.
“Probably, on paper, the best I may ever have for 25 more years, but football isn’t played on paper. There’s a lot of things people don’t see or understand and that’s the goal as a coach is to continue to challenge your kids,” says Defoor. “Even though my God-given talent may put me on this level, if I️ don’t do the things to prepare to be great then I’m going to fall short.”
Defoor’s defense is brimming with talent led by linebacker and four year starter Jeremiah Alexander. The pass rushing prodigy has racked up 73.5 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks in the last three seasons and linebackers coach Jake Ganus believes there’s another level the 2020 7A lineman of the year is about to reach.
“He’s had a different mindset, you could see it on the first day of spring practice, there’s an edge about him right now and that’s really exciting,” says Ganus. “He’s gotten more explosive, stronger, faster, bigger, all the things you want and he’s poised to have a really big senior year.”
Defensive end Peter Woods had half of his sophomore year stolen away by injury after an eye-popping freshman campaign, but he’s back and has his sights set on another great year and another ring.
“He’s locked in. His focus is a state championship,” said defensive line coach Woodrow Briggs. “That’s highly impressive for such a highly recruited, sought after kid. He’s the no. 2 prospect in the nation and his focus isn’t recruiting and that speaks for itself.”
Woods’ equally heralded classmate Tony Mitchell made a big jump his sophomore year intercepting four passes and causing two fumbles returning one of each for a touchdown. Defensive backs coach Jordan Robertson knows the potential Mitchell has and wants him to raise that ceiling even higher.
“I️ want to see him take the next step and become a vocal guy that’s truly calling out coverages and he’s taking strides, but I️ want him to see him take it to the next level and bring other guys along with him. That’s what I want to see from him and he’s doing good so far.”
Mitchell and an experienced secondary will be joined by transfer All-State cornerback Tre’Quon Fegans who knows a little something about taking the ball back to the house as well. Of Fegans’ 10 career interceptions, he’s taken six of them back for touchdowns. Freeman says Tre’Quon’s unique body type allows him to bait quarterbacks and recover with his length and quickness.
“Tre’Quon is as good a lockdown corner as I’ve ever had. The thing about Tre’Quon, I️ tell everybody his arms are super long. If he puts to his mind where ‘I’m going to lock this guy down and eliminate any throws’ he’s capable of doing that, but he’s savvy enough to lay off a guy, break on the ball and get himself some picks. That length allows him to cover more ground than you give him credit for.”
The defense also features other senior stalwarts and multi-year starters like Jax Van Zandt, Nate Riddle, Trevor Hardy and Karston Haywood. Players that Freeman believes are talented in their own right, but are flying under the mainstream radar.
Van Zandt and Hardy are both heading to D-1 football after their last rides having committed to North Texas and Memphis over the summer. Meanwhile, Riddle and Haywood both have college scholarship offers as well.
After breaking more records last year, Mark Freeman’s offense returns starting quarterback and reigning 7A back of the year Conner Harrell along with his top end zone target and MaxPreps All-American receiver Ryan Peppins. The duo helped break Thompson’s record for passing touchdowns last year (42) while Peppins tied Michael Pettway for the most touchdown receptions in a season with 16.
“Conner possesses a lot of things people wish they had at that position. He’s a great individual, he’s smart. We put a lot on our quarterback and people think we could put other players in this system and have the same numbers, but I’d have to disagree because I’m able to do what it appears we do because he gets us in the right plays and people are undervaluing him.”
“Peppins is as good as I‘ve ever had. One of my favorite guys. Had to grow up in his mind because in high school football they can stop one guy from dominating the game,” said Freeman. “But I’ve been telling colleges he’s smart and you can’t teach that. Understands leverages and how to get off on certain defensive strategies, he’s instinctive. As far as a slot receiver in college, if you throw the ball, I believe he can play for anyone in the country.”
Thompson also brings in some talented, experienced transfers on offense in Jaylen Ward, Justin Pegues and David Moultry. Ward is a tall, big play receiver with great hands and, in terms of production, was a top 5 receiver in 7A all last year. The trio combined for more than 2,000 yards of total offense last year and can help fill the shoes of departed playmakers JB Mitchell, Sam Reynolds, Tre Roberson and Jarrett Crockett.
Pegues helps round out a three headed hydra at running back as he joins seniors Brandon Franklin and Ahmari Bolden in the backfield. Franklin, who holds several scholarship offers, is the prototypical big body back who was hitting his stride before going down with an injury last year versus Spain Park.
Pegues will add his quick, shifty presence as an all-purpose back to the downhill style of Franklin. Bolden is a mix of the two as a former linebacker who seeks contact, but shares Pegues’ affinity for catching the ball out of the backfield and lining up at receiver.
The Warriors lose three starters on the offensive line to the college ranks, but return three players with starting experience including center Cole Hall and right guard Parker Mitchell. Hall and Mitchell have taken the reins as senior leaders which has offensive line coach Trey Clark very pleased.
“Outstanding leadership, it’s probably the best I’ve seen since I’ve been working at Thompson,” says Clark. “They do a tremendous job of getting the guys ready to go and teaching the young guys what to do and how to practice and how to carry themselves so I️ couldn’t be more proud of the senior leadership.”
Noah Watts is also a guy who’s seen plenty of battles in the trenches and he’ll be relied upon to help Hall and Mitchell hold up the interior of the line.
“He’s played as a starter since he was a freshman. He started in the playoffs in 2019 when we won our first state championship here. He was our sixth man last year, but started a couple games so he’s come a really long way. He’s confident in how to do it, how to practice and go about his business so he’s going to be ready to roll.”
Transfer junior Stanton Ramil is a towering presence at 6’5” and looks to man the left tackle spot. It’s taken some time for him to adjust, but Ramil, whose father Mike joined the THS coaching staff and played on the defensive line at Alabama, is getting used to the South.
“He played a spring season up in New York so he came down and had to get acclimated to the heat a little bit, but has done that and he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s had a great fall camp and he’ll be ready to go on Friday.”
Senior Marcos Guardado and junior Ryan Walker will also factor into the rotation on the line this year as Clark continues to find his most potent combination.
Blue chip talent dots the field for Thompson, but a cast of confident, accomplished players surround them. Seven years into his run at Thompson and Mark Freeman’s staff has the opportunity to send as many as 17 of their rising seniors to the next level in 2022. That’s the standard and expectation they’ve set for themselves.
It’s hard for the rat poison to seep in when the most important game is always the next one.