October 23, 2009 8:11:00 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
MACON -- The Noxubee County High School football team''s defense never rests.
At practice last season, the Tigers'' defense had to find ways to stop quarterback Termarcus Conner and a high-octane offense that featured wide receivers Patrick Patterson, Teddy Young, Vincent Sanders and others and a host of other weapons.
This year, Patterson has moved on to the University of Mississippi and a number of the Tigers'' 2008 stalwarts on offense and defense are now playing football in college.
Noxubee County high-scoring offense remains, though, and it has continued to provide excellent preparation for a defense that remains hungry for shutouts.
The Tigers (8-1, 3-0 Class 4A, Region 4, District 4), who already have seven shutouts this season, will take a string of four consecutive perfect ledgers to the field at 7 tonight when they play host to district rival Louisville (7-2, 3-0).
"Right now, the defense is doing just as good as the one last year," Noxubee County coach M.C. Miller said. "I wouldn''t put one ahead of the other, but they both are good. I just hope this one will take us where the other one did."
Tonight''s game likely will determine the two top seeds in the district with one more regular-season game remaining. Weather could play a factor. Heavy rain Friday morning blanketed parts of Northeast Mississippi, which could soften Noxubee County''s home playing field.
That field already has been through one mug-soaked game, West Point''s 20-12 victory against Noxubee County on Sept. 18.
That loss is one of only two scoring blemishes on the Tigers'' slate this season. The other came in a 23-12 victory against Columbus on Aug. 28.
Speed and experience have been the key to Noxubee County''s prowess on defense. Many of the starters on the defense saw considerable playing time last season given that the Tigers had comfortable leads in games by halftime.
Last year, Noxubee County''s defense benefited from facing a speedy offense in practice. It took what it learned in practice and earned seven shutouts and allowed only 20 points in nine regular-season games.
The defense stood up to the challenge in the playoffs, too. Although it allowed 72 points, it was more than strong enough to push Noxubee County to five more victories and played a key role in its victory against D''Iberville in the Class 4A title game.
This season, the Tigers had to live without senior Vincent Sanders, who plays cornerback and free safety, who broke his jaw Aug. 21 in the season opener against Starkville. Sanders missed five games and returned to the lineup Oct. 2 in a 38-0 victory against Kosciusko. While he plays a key role as quarterback and wide receiver, he also figures to see more time on defense as the season progresses.
"Everybody on the defense played last year," Sanders said. "We have a lot of seniors on defense, also, and great pride in our defense. We want shutouts or interceptions and sacks every game."
Sanders said this year''s defense is better than last year''s unit. He said players like Danarius Hunt have motivated the rest of the team to get multiple sacks or interceptions to make shutouts easier.
Miller never would have imagined the Tigers would eclipse the number of shutouts from last season
"They have just surprised me," Miller said. "They are playing hard and giving it all we have got, and that is all they ask."
Miller knows the defense can get better. He said it is still making too many mental mistakes. Often, though, he said the team''s quickness can help it overcome those errors. He acknowledged the defense hasn''t reached the level the coaches expect from it, but the players are still striving to meet that goal.
"It started from this offseason," said senior defensive back Jontae Skinner, a 5-foot-9, 190-pounder. "We worked hard. We had the potential to be better than the last defense. I really don''t think we''re stronger than that defense at the moment, but we just have to get in the weight room every day and strive to be better than the last defense."
Senior Patreon Hopkins, a 5-11, 195-pounder who plays defensive back and running back, said last year''s defense might have the edge in experience because many of those players played together since the 10th grade. He said this unit is doing all it can to match its predecessor.
"I think they doubted us a little bit since Pat left," Hopkins said. "We just knew we had to come in and work hard in the summer and do seven-on-sevens."
Skinner and Sanders agree the Tigers have the potential to defend their state title. The road to Jackson will go through Louisville at least once, and the Tigers are focused on doing what they can tonight and the rest of the way to add to that shutout total.
"If we keep striving to be better and better, we can do the same thing the last defense did (win a state title)," Skinner said.
Only then, Miller said will he truly be able to judge which defense is better.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.