As the fifth decade of Marshall County High School football dawns, new head coach Evan Merrick is quiet, calm, confident.
And, perhaps most important, comfortable.
Merrick succeeds Ron Barnard, after being on Barnard’s staff the past four years and a Marshall assistant the past eight seasons.
“Being at the same school, having eight years experience here, I’ve got a good relationship with the administration and the kids,” Merrick said.
“I’ve known a lot of these kids since they were in middle school, I’ve gotten to know their parents. That’s helped a lot with the comfort.”
Merrick said his primary objective is to bring relevance back to Marshall County football.
Last year’s team had only one victory.
“Wins, if you do things the right way and work hard, the wins will come along the way,” he said. “This is a proud program and we want to get it back to that level.”
Merrick’s easygoing style has already paid dividends, in that this year’s roster is larger by nearly 30 players compared to last year’s.
“There’s only one direction we can go, and that’s up,” he said. “That’s one of the things we’re trying to stress to our kids.”
The Marshals, after what Merrick described as a successful summer, had their first competitive test on Friday in a scrimmage at Fort Campbell.
The Marshals played two quarters against the Fort Campbell team and two against Clarksville (Tennessee) Northeast.
They came out on the short end of both contests, falling 14-12 when Fort Campbell scored a late touchdown, and 14-3 when Northeast jumped out to an early lead.
Senior quarterback Lane Roberts, who caught passes for the Marshals last season, caught one for a touchdown against the Falcons. Freshman backup quarterback Skyler Smith, taking his turn under center, made the throw.
Iverson Ware, who will anchor the defense at linebacker, will also see time at fullback this year. He carried the ball for the other TD, bringing to reality a personal dream.
“A goal of his was to be able to carry the football,” Merrick said of Ware. “We were skeptical at first because he’s been a career off lineman. We gave him to opportunity to do that and he’s taken it an really gravitated toward it.”
The offense will look similar to past year, but with greater emphasis on the tight end, Merrick said.
“Personnel-wise,we’ve got some depth at the tight end position,” he said, naming Bryson Jessup and James Ambler as two prospects.
“That’s a position that can allow our offense to do some other things,” Merrick said. “We’ll still kind of base out of a one-back set, use the run to set up our passing game, but with the ability ability to use tight end in different formations, we can give our offense a different look that can confuse and complicate some defenses.”
The offensive line will have some returning starters, including senior right tackle Sam Dunn, who anchored both the O and D lines last year.
Justin and Jared Robinson will get most of the reps at running back, with Ware and Joseph Roath also in the rotation.
Wideout spots will be manned by Casey Gregory and Gunn, along with Noah Beard and Ryan Carr.
Former Marshals quarterback Stephen Barga has been added to the staff this year and has been providing valuable guidance to Roberts and Smith, Merrick said.
Roberts has very little experience at quarterback, Merrick said, but added that his experience playing in the slot and at wideout will make him a dynamic offensive player.
“He’s gotten better at throwing the ball, but in game situations he can use his legs and create more time for himself and kind of be that dual-threat guy,” Merrick said.
On defense, the Marshals will have a new look. Gone is the three-man front, replaced by a four-man line.
“It’s going to resemble a 4-4,” Merrick said, “but it will really be a 4-2” because the two linebackers will be flanked by so-called monsters, who will play a hybrid role as outside linebackers and cornerbacks.
Collin Gunn, a junior, returns as one starter at monster, and Eddie Morris, who is back with the team after being out of football the past few seasons, is at the other.
Patrick Warnoski and Dalton Nelson will rotate with Gunn and Morris.
“They’re going to be in a position where they can bring some pressure from the edge and disguise some stunts, do some things that’s going to take some pressure off the secondary,” Merrick said.
Ware will direct the defense from one of the linebacker spots.
“Having that four front is going to allow him to just go sideline to sideline and make plays and read the ball and not have to do a lot of the extra stuff that he’s done and take on as many blocks,” Merrick said.
James Ambler will partner Ware at the other linebacker position, with Zach Garland and Joshua Brown among the backups.
The depth charts show several two-way starters, but Merrick said, “We’ve got some depth, guys we can shuttle in and out, spell those guys, keep ‘em fresh. And that helps our younger guys get some experience.”
In the secondary, Gregory and Jared Robinson are slated to start, along with Lucas Forsythe at safety. Colton Lampley, Brody Flentge and Matthew Hunt will provide depth.
Hunt, a soccer standout, will participate in both fall sports and will handle punting and placekicking duties.
The Marshals have an open date in this first week of the season, and Merrick said that will be a good thing.
“Where we are right now, it’s good to have that extra week for preparation,” he said.
His team will open play on Aug. 29 against Trigg County in Cadiz.
“The goal right now is to build morale. Get the kids feeling confident in what they’re doing and build some momentum going into the season,” Merrick said.
His philosophy, he said, is “to take it one day at a time.”
He added, “I know that’s a cliché, but we want to make the most of each day and take each challenge as it comes.”