When asked what word best described this year’s New Albany team, several players issued the same response: “Intense.”
“We’re way more intense this year,” junior running back Tuwan Payton said. “Everybody’s just ready.”
The Bulldogs and second-year head coach Charlie Fields are looking to improve on a 1-9 season last year that ended with a 56-7 loss to Castle in the first round of sectional play.
Fields said the young squad that took the field last year, which included many sophomores with limited varsity time, has evolved into an experienced group.
“They went from one year playing middle-school football to the next year playing against Castle and Columbus East,” he said. “They had to grow up very quickly, and they did. That experience, I think, is going to really help.”
Fields deemed this team a group of “grinders.”
“They’re not about wearing fancy clothes or doing fancy things,” he said. “These kids are football players and they want to compete.”
The Bulldogs lost a few key players to graduation, but they boast a substantial junior class and some veteran seniors.
Senior quarterback Michael Diehl is a dual threat as the team’s top passer and runner. He’ll anchor what Fields describes as a “balanced” attack that won’t be altered much from last year’s scheme.
“We have the ability to take what the defense gives us,” Fields said. “There might be a game where the running game’s not there. In our offensive system, we can take some things in the passing game. If the passing game’s not there, we’ve got some things we can exploit in the running game.”
Diehl has several options for the ground game, including Payton and junior Jeffontae McClain.
“This summer I’ve worked on my cardio and my footwork, to stay in the game longer and help my team out,” Payton said.
Juniors Ravon Wright and Keaton Stout and sophomore James Ray comprise the receiving corps, and senior Marquil Hastings will play an integral role at tight end.
One area where the Bulldogs will be more formidable is the offensive line, led by junior center Braxton Bragg and senior tackle Nick Lynch. Last season, the line was left depleted by the graduation of four veterans.
“We have a better line than we did last year,” Hastings said. “Hopefully, it will be to our benefit. We’re hoping to improve on both offense and defense, in scoring and putting more numbers on the board.”
One of the team’s strengths is speed on defense, where most of the lineup is returning starters.
Juniors Jesse Demuth, an end, and tackle Rhygis Barbour anchor the line.
Hastings and junior Ethan Adkins will contribute at linebacker. The secondary is led by Payton and McClain.
“Our biggest strength will be execution, and our defensive backs will have the best coverage in Southern Indiana,” Payton said.
Special teams is a focal point of concentration for New Albany during practice.
“We’ve worked on that a lot and we’re definitely better,” Diehl said. “Mainly we’ve worked on kickoff returns and getting down the field.”
The challenging schedule includes home games against Castle (Aug. 24), Bedford North Lawrence (Sept. 7) and Columbus East (Sept. 14).
“A lot of people in Indiana knock Southern Indiana football, but we have some tough teams around here,” Fields said.
On Sept. 28, the Bulldogs travel to Jeffersonville for one of the most anticipated battles of the year.
“Our game with Jeff is always an intense rivalry game, no matter what the records are,” he said.