Fruitland – North Henderson Knights return their third-year quarterback for an encore of high-scoring contests, in a “crusade” through Mountain Seven Conference battles.
NHHS is in its third season under head coach Jim Beatty. He led T.C. Roberson to MAC titles a decade ago. In his NHHS debut, he went 4-3 including 3-3 in the elite MAC to tie for fourth. Last season’s mark was 4-7 including 2-4 in the M7. In this season, North fell at HHS in its opener. But its schedule eases for two very winnable contests before opening the M7 season Sept. 16 at West Henderson.
The Knights beat West 49-14 last fall, which helped them make playoffs. Coach Beatty called it a “sweeter win to beat a cross-town rival. We beat them (West) two years in a row. They’re so well coached. West will be much improved.” Knight receiver Drake Blackwell said “it’s always good to beat West — in any sport. They’ve always been one of our biggest rivals.” He reasoned “to beat them, you’ve got to have a solid defense.” West now throws more than run as before.
North Knights reversed their switch, to run more than before. “We run the ball more,” Beatty said. Grads in ‘22 include 1,400-yard rusher Hazahn Collington, fast slot receiver Jaylen Croft and spirited LB-OL Dylan Blackwell. But the Knights again return nearly half starters — this time six on defense, five on offense.
The new lead back is long-striding Zion Fauntleroy-McDaniel (5-11, 165 jr.). He had 25 carries in the opener. “Zion has great vision,” Beatty said. “He’s real patient staying behind his blockers, to see holes.” Mason Gasperson (5-9, 150 so.) might split carries, Beatty said. “Mason is quick to see a hole, and get through. Both can ‘tote the mail,’ and catch the ball coming out of the backfield.” He and swift RB Zquavian Gaines (5-9, 150 sr.) combined for 255 return yards versus HHS.
The First Knight is QB Jaxson Willis (6-2 1/2, 205 sr.). He is a track sprinter, 15 pounds heavier and stronger. Willis passed for 1,588 yards and 15 TDs last fall despite missing some time while injured. Improving accuracy is crucial. Beatty said “Jaxson is doing good job of executing, and finding open receivers. He doesn’t feel quite as rushed. He scrambled and kept eyes downfield, and threw a TD pass to Drake (Blackwell)” in a scrimmage.
Receivers include juniors Blackwell (6-3, 190), Johnny Costley (5-10, 140) and Landon Hunter (5-10, 145). Swift, athletic Costley had four of the team’s six receptions Friday, and 47 of 69 receiving yards. “He’s a phenomenal athlete. He’s really fast (4.72). Now he’s the guy.”
The reliable Blackwell is a “great route runner,” Beatty said. “He has really good hands and fine speed (4.7-8), to go with his size” – as has Kylo Wright (6-1, 185 sr.). Reserve WR Alex Ayala (5-10, 155 jr.) is the fastest (4.61) Knight. Tight ends include Grayson Fallas-Boyd (6-2, 197 sr.), who caught two passes Friday.
North’s O-line often protected Willis well against fierce HHS pass rushers. Returning starters are center Zeke Reyes (6-0, 252 jr.) and LG Bryson Metcalf (6-0, 246 sr.). Joining them are tackles Ty Stepp (6-2, 245 so.) and Brett Becker (6-1, 226 so.), and RG Kristian Edwards (6-0, 215 jr.). “I really like where we’re at up front,” said Beatty, who also coaches the O-line. “We’re athletic, and much stronger. We do a good job coming off the ball, and staying with our blocks. They’re a big part of our success.”
Esteban Sanchez (5-9, 155 jr.) kicked two field goals Friday. His reliable range is 42 yards. He can reach 50. He punts.
D-coordinator Zach Wilkins switched from a 3-4 to a four-man front that includes 6-3 wrestling star Reese Meadows (6-3, 220 jr.) and Chad Baird (6-2, 205 jr.). Standouts also include strong safety Costley and MLB Keith Payne (6-1, 185 jr.), who had a sack Friday. Payne has “great instincts” and 4.68 speed to “run plays down,” Coach Beatty said. NHHS excels when “we’re flying around, getting five to eight guys after the ball to gang tackle” and stifle the M7 power running teams. He said the weekly aim is to stick with foes, to “give ourselves a shot in the fourth quarter to win.”