2018 Gridiron: Mark Twain Tigers
Total Returning Lettermen: 19
2017 Overall Record: 4-7
Head Coach: Karl Asbury
Years at School: 3
Record at School: 23-12
Overall Record: 73-72
A JACE UP THEIR SLEEVES: REVITALIZED TIGERS POISED TO REAP BENEFIT OF YOUTH MOVEMENT
GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK: Put succinctly, the 2017 Campaign proved a “dues payer” for Mark Twain Football. Complete with all the requisite growing pains and peaks/valleys that go hand in hand with opting to play High School Varsity Football with a starting line-up comprised of 65% underclassmen. The Tigers rolled out of the gate with a stunning road win over a Milan team that would ultimately underachieve for the entire Fall. Twain then proceeded to lose six straight before reeling off a string of three straight victories at Van-Far, Clopton/Elsberry and finally Knox County’s expense in the District Opener. Followed by a season ending blowout loss to the eventual State Champ Monroe City to cap a 4-7 season. That may feel a little non-descript from the outside looking in but we saw ample promise for the future spin out of that October rush and in particular that 36-32 win over Knox. Karl Asbury will build forward now with 19 returning Letterman; 15 of whom were starters last Fall. Clearly, there is cause for heightened optimism in Tiger Country this Fall.
THE CENTER OF ATTENTION IN CENTER: Jace Barton’s breakout Sophomore Campaign, highlighted by a 212 yard/three touchdown statement game against Knox, provides Karl Asbury’s run-based attack a proven (bordering on elite) feature back around which to build. The 2017 numbers were impressive in and of themselves: 200 carries, 1221 ground yards, six games of better than 100 yards rushing, and 15 touchdowns. That established, Jake’s execution within that role had to be seen to be totally appreciated. He’s jarringly quick to and through the offensive line and is absolutely terrific at hitting the jets and running to daylight once he reaches that second level of a defense. Put simply he’s not a dancer and he doesn’t mess around; aggressively getting to the hole and then exploiting whatever the defense gives him from there. Jace does change direction intuitively, runs with good natural (and aggressive) body lean and has a tendency to bounce off initial contact, recoil, and find extra yardage. He’s also put on ten pounds of muscle since last we saw him without surrendering his ability to hit occasional home runs out of the backfield (his longest rush of 2017 was 70 yards, so he’s clearly more than just a power back) as well. For my money, Barton is just kind of the right “tweener” here, coupling Fullback mindset and power with legitimate Tailback burst and elusiveness. He’s got a terrific window here to grow and demonstrate his talents over the next two seasons and while I think Jace is destined to command a great deal more defensive attention moving forward, his approach and work rate suggests he will handle that just fine. I’d be stunned if he is anything less than a 1500yd/20TD guy in 2018. So keep him top of mind in your football conversations when you want to impress your friends with your knowledge of the local scene. Dropping a “don’t sleep on this Jace Barton kid at Mark Twain” riff at the coffee shop will make you look rather astute down the road.
AMMO FOR THE AMBUSH: With a viable number one weapon clearly established, Karl Asbury’s offensive focus this Summer will be asset diversification in an effort to pull some defensive focus off of Jace Barton. There’s ample reason to suspect this will be readily achievable and that Mark Twain can and should expand on the 20 points per game it averaged a year ago. Junior Avery Epperson is a key cog in that equation. He’s coming off a sensational Defensive campaign and the further infusion of strength and toughness he brings (5’9” 195lbs) could prove a quality tenderizer punch thrown in concert with the Barton Haymaker. Avery garnered just 53 totes a year ago and produced 184 yards and two touchdowns. But if you harken back to his opening night performance against Milan (15 carries, 82 yards, 2 TD) it’s not hard to see his relative value. Logan Perrigo got a chance to strut his stuff a little bit as a Sophomore and delivered an impressive 7 carry, 81 yard rushing effort at Clopton/Elsberry’s expense.
There’s also the looming presence of Nathan Davenport to consider, though exactly how and where Coach Asbury decides to employ his nimble 6’2” Senior is one of the more riveting intrigues of camp. The Tiger Track and Field standout caught a pair of passes a year ago in his guise at Wide Receiver, but he’s a far more valuable piece than that limited usage would suggest. Nathan has field stretching burst. He could well line up at Wide Receiver again. Or he might be part of the equation to replace Graduated Quarterback Lincoln Talbott; a position which Coach Asbury has traditionally been willing to experiment with over the Summer with conversion projects. In truth, I never really know what to expect from a Karl Asbury team at Quarterback until Week One so it’s always a little safer in these pages to assume nothing and show up for the Opener ready to be pleasantly surprised.
EARNING THEIR STRIPES: While it’s human nature as a football fan to over-focused on the Skill Position Guys, I want to geek out here a little on Mark Twain’s three returning Offensive Linemen and their value moving forward. Granted, Matias Bridges, Casey Williams, and Evan Johnson aren’t going to awe or scare anyone with their hulking size walking off the bus. They are all three kids who are multiple trips to the buffet table from hitting 200 pounds on the scale. Watch them play in isolation and you can’t help but like their persistence and doggedness getting to and staying on their blocks. They are clearly coached up to be aggressive and it’s encouraging to see so many chopping feet and nasty initial pops from these three. You also see a lot of cagey football. Johnson in particular is really diligent in keeping his body between the defender and the ball carrier, walling off lanes for his guys to run. Bridges is a little bit of a different proposition. For weighing something like 195 pounds, Mathias really does play with the base of a much larger guy. We saw him over and over again on tape standing up bigger guys and freezing them in their tracks with great arm extension and the ability to hold his ground. It’s kind of uncanny that he can do that against guys who outweigh him by 40-50 pounds. Williams outlier here is his ability to get off the line of scrimmage in a blink and work up field. He plays Offensive Line like the Linebacker he is, which fits the fleet narrative here of trading nimble and nasty for big and plodding. It’s a really fun nucleus. Finding two new starters to go with them, especially given the loss of Aidan Epperson, will be no picnic. Junior Kameron Asquith and Sophomore Brendan Yelton might be the early front runners to join this Brigade of Body Guards in the trenches. It could be a really fun group if everything gels right.
TRAVEL LIGHT, HIT HEAVY: For Mark Twain to make a significant improvement in the win column, the Tigers have to do a better job of stopping their opponents. It’s just that simple. Yield nearly 35 points per night to the “other guys” and pretty typically the “other guys” are going to win; even in the obscenely high scoring EMO. And it really didn’t take amazing powers of football analysis to see that Twain really did defend like a ridiculously young team. Tackles that didn’t get finished. Over aggression at the expense of measured proficiency getting guys to the ground. Not getting off blocks. These are all incredibly fixable things; especially now that the Tigers are playing a simple majority of veterans rather than rookies in critical spots. Conceivably Karl Asbury could end up playing one, perhaps two total kids on this unit who weigh more than 200 pounds so quickness, technique, and consistency are going to have to be the “bridge to betterment” here.
On the plus side, Karl Asbury welcomes back his Linebacker Group in its entirety. Avery Epperson led that group with 105 total tackles as a Sophomore. Epperson had five games of double digit tackles, including a very revealing 15 stop outing against South Callaway that tells you all you need to know about this kid’s competitive zeal and ability to rise to the moment against the toughest competition of the year. He’s a good finisher and the kind of bankable run-stuffer you can frame everything else around. His fit here is really apt because Twain has a couple of guys here in Jace Barton (59 tackles, 7 stops for loss) and Nathan Davenport (52 tackles, 6 behind the line of scrimmage) who have potentially catalyzing big play ability here. Add in Casey Williams, who had a very solid 30 tackle Junior campaign, and this looms as a very versatile and dynamic group to anchor the Defense.
Bigger questions loom both behind and in front of that potentially stellar pack of Backers. Brayden Mcleod is the only returnee in the Secondary. He may well also turn out to be the program’s best coverage option since Brady Hooley, after breaking up five passes and posting 27 tackles a year ago. Expect Junior Ben Rule and Sophomore Devin Whaley to factor into the construction of this new Defensive Backfield when all is said and done. Evan Johnson (12 tackles, 2 stops for loss) and Mathias Bridges (47 tackles, 6 behind the line of scrimmage) are high motor guys on the defensive line who can cover a lot of ground. As with the Offensive Line, Kameron Asquith and Brendan Yelton are being counted on to jump in as Underclassmen and help solidify the overall mix.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: I can say with confidence Mark Twain will be more consistent in 2018 than it was last Fall. That’s the difference when the majority of your starting line-up is now comprised of Seniors and Juniors. And I suspect we see a Tiger squad here that looks more like the one we saw rise in October. You would think that would automatically equate to more victories this year, but in truth, I think the overall quality of play in the EMO just about everywhere should be better than it was a year ago. And obviously, the Tigers District is ridiculously loaded with Monroe City sitting there and Scotland County on the uptick. So jumping from four wins to say seven or eight wins in 2018 comes with a much higher degree of difficulty for Karl Asbury and the Tiger Crew. I would assert that a strong start here is paramount in setting the template for the Tigers to reach their goals. Twain opens with Louisiana and Milan, before traveling to what could be a vastly improved Bowling Green squad. Come out of that run 2-1 or 3-0 and Mark Twain enters the South Callaway game with wind in the sails and home field advantage. That would be a pretty enviable spot for a team with aspirations of and the ability to make some noise with its quickness and its tenacity. Again, there’s something about this particular group of guys I really like. The undersized-but-spunky and smart crew that opponents underestimate and who wins far more games than you think they will. And again, I am a sucker for Offensive Linemen who make the game look fun. So while the conservative estimate puts Mark Twain at four to five wins, I would not be stunned if these guys somehow got to seven or eight with a couple of “shocker” upsets along the way. I really do think this defense turns that corner and restores the roar. So if you are asking, Twain is my dark horse for 2018. And I guess we will see soon enough how smart or dumb the Tigers make me looking in the offing as they attempt to restore the roar.