Preseason workouts haven’t gone quite as planned for first-year Newport coach Dan Harrison, but not because of a lack of production from either the coaches or players.
Blame it on Mother Nature.
Rain forced the Greyhounds indoors for much of the fall workouts, forcing them to practice inside instead of on an actual field. But Harrison said that never once did the players complain, especially with the outside accompanied by the heat and humidity of summer. Instead, they looked at the situation as a chance to grow and develop even more.
“They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do, and as a coach, you’ve got to love that about them,” Harrison said. “We’ve got 43 kids out, including 13 seniors, and they’re giving about as good an effort as you can when you practice inside. It’s rained so much that our field has been soaked, especially during the early days of practice.
“But we managed to get some things done, went through some walk-throughs. Everything’s been great … except the weather.”
The weather may be the only thing that slows the Greyhounds down this season if they play the way Harrison feels they’re capable of playing.
Newport returns 14 starters from a team that went 8-4 in 2012 and advanced to the state playoffs for the 26th consecutive season. The Greyhounds finished third in the ultra-tough 2-4A conference, losing only to league and state champion Stuttgart, 20-13, and conference second-place finisher Dollarway, 44-42, in overtime. Newport eventually lost to Booneville in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs, but by all accounts, the Greyhounds overachieved, considering how young they were.
Newport started seven sophomores and a freshman last year. That year of experience may do wonders for the psyche of a team picked to finish behind Dollarway in the preseason coaches poll.
“Expectations are always high around here,” Harrison said. “We know what’s expected here, and we go out each day trying to get better and better. We’ve got some young guys on this team, but we’ve also got some experience.
“That always makes things easier. We’ve got a chance to be very good.”
The Greyhounds have seven regulars back on both sides of the ball, led by quarterback Gunnar Bullard. The 5-foot-11, 165-pound junior passed for nearly 1,400 yards and 21 touchdowns against just three interceptions while rushing for 412 yards and an additional two scores. Senior utility back Kristen Crite (5-9, 160) returns after putting together an all-state campaign last year.
Crite rushed for 832 yards and 16 touchdowns to go along with his 390 yards receiving and six touchdowns.
“He’s just an awesome player,” Harrison said. “He can play wide receiver, running back, anywhere. “He’s a very smart, talented kid and does so many great things in space.
“We’re always trying to find ways to get him the ball.”
Harrison will also look at finding ways to get the ball to prized sophomore Carl Turner. As a freshman, Turner excelled instantly on the varsity level to rush for 1,709 yards and 13 touchdowns, including a 319-yard, two-touchdown effort in the Greyhounds’ 46-40 victory over Farmington in the first round of the playoffs.
“Unbelievable,” Harrison said in describing Turner. “He had a monster season for us, and we couldn’t have asked for any more. It’s always a good problem to have when you’ve got two all-state guys in your backfield.”
Newport will be well-stocked at wide receiver, led by seniors Greg Smith (5-11, 155) and Ashante Shell (6-4, 200). The offensive line will also be in good shape, with tackle Jesse Simmons (6-4, 265) viewed as being one of the Greyhounds’ top college prospects.
The defense is battle-tested, beginning with Khairan Stafford (6-3, 235). The junior had 85 tackles a year ago and is expected to either duplicate or better that number in 2013.
“We basically built our defense around him,” Harrison said. “He’s such a great kid. He has a 3.8 grade-point average and is just an all-around great kid. We’ll be leaning on him a lot.”
Junior Colton Willis (5-11, 160) is also expected to contribute at a linebacker slot after performing admirably as a sophomore.
The defensive front should be in good shape behind senior Ramiro Macias (5-9, 200), and the secondary has the potential to be one of the top units in the conference with Crite, seniors Markus Neal (5-7, 150) and Shufon Alcorn (5-6, 155), and juniors Deandre Elston (5-11, 180) and Keith Worsham (5-10, 170) all expected to be impact players.
“We’re excited to get this thing started,” Harrison said. “We’re trying to develop some depth by working with some of the youngsters, but we feel really good about this team. If we can stay healthy, be smart and take care of ourselves, we think we’ll be pretty good.”