Kris Pickle sees the difference in Thomas Stevens after one season.
A year ago, Pickle watched Stevens go through the growing pains most quarterbacks have in their first season taking over a team. While Stevens had his flashes, the Trojans struggled through a season that saw them unable to close several close games. The result was a three-win campaign that left New Hope eagerly awaiting a fresh start.
It’s easy to see now why New Hope was so optimistic about 2016.
Thanks to some strong play by its offensive line and its skill players, New Hope has defeated two teams (Louisville and Aberdeen) it lost to last season. It will carry that 2-0 record into its Lowndes County matchup against Columbus (1-1) at 7 p.m. Friday.
Senior quarterback Thomas Stevens led the charge with 376 yards passing and three touchdowns. Pickle said he sees a big difference in Stevens after he has had a year in the offense to understand how everything works and where everyone is supposed to be.
“The biggest thing as a quarterback is you have to know where everybody is,” Pickle said. “You have to know here your primary read is, you have to know where your secondary read is, and you have to know where your checkdown is. You have to know all of those things. Last year, I think he was in kind of in a gunslinger approach, just standing back there and pat, pat, pat (the ball) and looking all around and looking to throw the ball. When that happens, you end up late throwing the ball and putting the ball in positions it doesn’t need to go.”
Stevens said he learned a lot from Pickle last season. He feels a year of maturity has helped him understand he needs to know where and why he is going to throw the ball as opposed to just throwing it. He acknowledged that the cliche of the game slowing down applies in his case because he believes he has a better feel for what to do.
“Last year, I was rushing everything and rushing my reads,” Stevens said. “I have just gotten a little bit slower.”
Pickle saw Stevens’ poise at the position last season, but he said the understanding of the offense Stevens has developed and his ability to think like he does and to know why the Trojans call a play has helped the offense make the most of its weapons. Pickle said he and his assistant coaches have changed the way they worked with Stevens and tried to explain what the team wants to capitalize on and then ask Stevens.
“He had some big plays,” Pickle said of Stevens. “We were able to throw a screen pass for 60 yards. We had a couple of long passes down the field. He was accurate throwing the ball. He missed one deep ball that was wide open, but we are not necessarily a deep-ball team, by any means. We want to run it, run it, run it, and take our chances whenever we get a chance to take our chance.”
Pickle credited the play of the offensive line for giving Stevens a chance to throw the ball. He said the play of that experienced group enabled Stevens to throw for 376 yards and three touchdowns.
It also helps that Stevens has a variety of weapons to go to, and all of them have the ability to make plays. Pickle said there aren’t many teams that can cover the number of receivers/tight ends that the Trojans have. He said the combination of Aaron Brooks, Tyler Harris, Jaylon Mays, TJ Stephens, Jeremy Tate, and Terryonte Thomas and running back Tyran Reed gives the Trojans the ability to throw multiple looks at opponents so they can capitalize on matchups.
“It makes it easier when you know you can throw it to them and they are going to catch it, and then they catch it and run with it,” Stevens said. “Jeremy can jump and get it. Andre and Aaron are fast. Terryonte and Jaylon are fast and can go up and get a ball.”
New Hope did that in its opener against Aberdeen. The Trojans utilized the speed of Erby as a slot receiver against linebackers to create mismatches. Pickle said the Trojans won’t be a team that throws the football 40-50 times. Instead, he said they will strive to have balance and pick their spots to take advantage of matchups when they see ones they can exploit.
“I think the biggest thing Friday night is we played in front of the chains all night,” Pickle said. “We put ourselves in position where we didn’t have third and longs or second and longs. We didn’t have predictable downs. You become predictable on offense whenever you get in those situations.”
Stevens said the first two victories have given the team a lot of confidence. Several of the Trojans talked in the preseason about having more leadership from a larger senior class. Stevens echoed that thinking and said the come-from-behind victory against Louisville was crucial because it validated the players’ belief they were capable of finishing. He said the goal will be to build on that win and the victory against Aberdeen so the team can compete for a playoff spot out of Class 5A, Region 1.
“I think our seniors have stepped up,” Stevens said. “We know what we have worked for, and we have worked hard to get where we are and to get where we need to be, hopefully.
“That first victory felt good because we won it as a team. Our defense got better and our offense got a lot better.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.