Neville’s offensive stats from a season ago paint a picture of borderline desperation at the wide receiver position – at least to an outsider, anyway.
Last year’s leader in receiving yards (792), Chris Fuller, transferred to IMG Academy just days before fall practice started. Last year’s leader in targets (55) and touchdowns (10), Kavontae Turpin, is making an impact on a team with different playoff aspirations: TCU, as one of the favorites to make the College Football Playoff.
Including the losses to graduation of Alex Varytimidis, Juquarius Emerson and Harper Street, the Tigers return just 360 of last season’s 1,938 receiving yards (roughly 18 percent) and 23 of last season’s 90 receptions. No one in Neville football program is taking those losses lightly.
“When you lose kids like Kavontae, who’s playing for the No. 2 team in the country and is going to play for them as a freshman, that tells you his kind of talent,” Neville offensive coordinator Brett Lemoine said. “Chris had a good year for us, too.”
Lemoine’s next sentence could have been interpreted as feeding the company line, or maybe sending a public message to his wide receivers to get in the right state of mind, but it only took two preseason scrimmages to rule those out completely.
When Lemoine says, “Our deal here is next man up,” he means it.
Despite heavy losses both before and during fall camp – junior Josh Diarse is out with a broken collarbone – the Tigers approach the 2015 season with enough perimeter talent to not miss a beat coming off of a state championship, and it starts with senior Quintin Guice, better known simply as ‘Q’.
“Going in, before any of that happened, we felt like we had some depth,” Lemoine said. “We were pretty fortunate with Quintin, because Quintin is sharp enough with our system that he can play all four spots and has before. He can play all four receiver spots, so moving him from one spot to the other was good.”
New top target
In the absence of other returning playmakers, Guice — 14 catches for 246 yards and three touchdowns last season, leading returners in all three categories — recognized the obvious pressure that would be placed on his shoulders and began working toward that increased role immediately.
“I feel as though there was some pressure on me to step up and become a big playmaker,” Guice said. “Even when Chris was here, I thought the team was going to need me to be a big playmaker.”
Finding the endzone three times in the scrimmage against Ouachita and continuing to make plays while in the crosshairs of a stingy West Monroe defense proved his work has paid off.
“I worked on scoring in the open field. Last year, I got the ball but I didn’t make a lot of plays in the open field. I worked on that this summer,” Guice said. “It’s worked really well. I feel as though I’ve gotten a lot faster this year and my lateral speed has improved. Hopefully it translates to on the field on Friday night.”
Lemoine added, “He runs well and he’s gotten better. He’s gotten better every year. Last year we had Kavontae and Chris, so Q was kind of our third option, which was pretty good, and he made plays when he was open. He did well in the scrimmage against Ouachita and made a couple of nice plays in the jamboree with double coverage. I think Quintin’s ready.”
More to prove
While no one wanted to see them go, Turpin’s and Fuller’s departure gave Guice the opportunity he has not only as Neville’s top wide receiver, but also to reap the rewards of the exposure that comes with that role.
Not many FBS colleges in the region or in the nation have made a strong move in recruiting Guice, and this season gives him a chance to change that.
“It put me in a great opportunity to show colleges that I can play wide receiver at the next level,” Guice said. “Obviously, it’s all about bringing another championship to Neville, but I also want to prove to coaches that I can play on the next level.”
Guice’s dedication and goals are clear, but the secret to getting there might take more patience.
“I think with Quintin, he has to understand that when his plays are there for the making he needs to make them,” Neville head coach Mickey McCarty said. “He doesn’t have to make all the plays, there’s certainly room for others to make plays. He doesn’t have to carry all of the weight with us. When his opportunities are there, we just need him to make them.”
While Guice is earning the respect of Neville fans and college coaches, he’ll earn the respect of Neville’s opponents even quicker, and with that respect comes the attention of a second defender. Guice has learned to expect double teams and his coaches expect the same.
“Right now, he’s that guy that has the game experience, made big plays in the scrimmage and so forth, so I think people will certainly key on him at this point until others step up and prove that they can make plays aside from Quintin,” McCarty said. “I think those guys are here.”
Guice takes no issues with the double teams coming his way this fall: he knows being flanked by playmakers such as Deshun Roberson and Kemario Newton will put the Tigers on the scoreboard even if it’s not him touching the ball.
“If you double me and leave Kemario or (Roberson) open, we’ll still score,” Guice said. “There’s still playmaking ability.”
Roberson is an especially interesting player, returning to football after taking two years off to focus on basketball. Neville’s point guard-turned-wide receiver’s fast-twitch speed has Lemoine being creative in finding ways to get him the ball.
“He’s one of those that’s got quickness as well as pretty good speed in that it doesn’t take him long to get going,” Lemoine said. “You have guys that are striders, where it takes them a little while to get going. By the time he takes his first step, he’s at top speed.
“Deshun was a pleasant surprise. We knew he was athletic, all you had to do was watch him play basketball to know that. He’s picked up on it. He’s getting there and he’s making plays.”
Roberson is better known in the locker room as Itty Bitty, an obvious play on his size, but his playmaking ability is huge.
“Itty is Itty. That’s all I can say,” senior tight end William Wooten said. “He’s a great athlete. I’m ready to watch him myself.”
Itty Bitty and Kemario Newton complete the current top two to take attention off of Guice, but Wooten’s role is of importance, as well. Wooten recognizes his role is to, “get every play started,” as primarily a blocker, but there is more than enough room in the offense to find spots for him to get the ball.
“We’re going to be able to spread the ball out and get the ball to our main playmakers,” Wooten said.
The combination of proven and new talent, all of it explosive, gives Lemoine an abundance of options from a playcalling perspective that he’s visibly excited to use when discussing it.
“It depends on the formation, but what we’d like to get is pick your poison. You get out there and say, ‘Ok, I’m going to double him,’ well, then you single him and we’ve got other guys that can beat man coverage,” Lemoine said. “We like them to play balanced so we can let our quarterbacks make their read. We teach our guys to throw to the open guy.
“We’re fortunate to have some talent to work with here.”
Enough talent where three losses are unfortunate, but truthfully better described as opportunities for the next man up.
Follow Brett on Twitter, @BHudsonTNS.