Nov. 17—LAURINBURG — It wasn't the storybook season that some underdog teams create, nor was it the most thrilling football to watch at times on the sideline.
It was a growing experience for the St. Andrews Knights football team, which wrapped up its season last Saturday with a 14-0 loss at Point in Valley, Alabama, going 0-11 for the first time in the program's seven-year history.
The Knights' roster consisted of mainly young players who were inexperienced, which didn't necessarily augur well for a winning season.
"I do think our youth inhibited our ability to execute the way we wanted to, but I think that's traditionally what happens in young teams because most colleges don't have as many freshmen starting on their roster as we did," St. Andrews head coach Bob Curtin said. "And that's not an excuse. It's the situation we were dealt with. But now that it's over, now that we're afforded the opportunities to plan and prepare for next season, that youth is now seasoned. We now have at least eight, nine guys on the defense, the special teams, and the offense that are coming back. When they do come back, they're coming back with experience, real game experience, and not just one and two plays, a multitude of plays. So I think that's important."
St. Andrews had over 55 true freshmen this season, with several starting on offense, defense, and special teams.
"I think number one, offensively, I think we've got great (freshmen) running backs," Curtin said. "I think ... Nahjiir (Seagraves), Kevon (Daniels), Brandon (Basknight), and George Tharpe are all really good football players. So, I think offensively, we've got that. We've got some great wide receivers that, given the time, they'll be able to catch them all. Defensively, I think our DB (defensive back) core... I think those young freshmen and Tierell Milligan and Nick Henderson are really bright spots. And then, of course, we've got other bright spots that guys showed up and did great things. So, I don't want to not highlight some of the other great successes but those are the ones that really stick out to me. That's what we need to build around."
Playing one of the hardest schedules in NAIA didn't help matters either, having to go against NCAA Division I Davidson, Bethel (Tenn.) — which finished the season ranked No. 7 in the NAIA Top-25 coaches' poll — No. 18 Reinhardt, and No. 19 Lindsey Wilson. But coming up short in close games to Kentucky Christian, which defeated St. Andrews 18-15 on Oct. 21, and Point late in the season was disappointing.
A change in the offensive scheme to go to the veer option midseason didn't seem to provide an extra boost to an offense that averaged just 7.6 points per game, which ranked 91st out of 94 NAIA teams. The defense showed signs of life, particularly the secondary, which had eight interceptions. But despite that, it allowed 51 points to their opponents, which was dead last in all of the NAIA.
"Don't want to feel those same feelings again," Curtin said. "To avoid that, we've got to maximize our time and energy with the weight room, track, practice field, and in the classroom to ensure that all this struggle, all this pain, was not for nothing. It was for something; it was to be better tomorrow."
The biggest issue for the Knights lay in the trenches. The offensive and defensive lines struggled to be effective, and when that happens, it's a pain for any player to do their job efficiently.
"We're doing a really good job right now recruiting some transfer portal guys, and some guys that were at other institutions, who thought they were going to get an opportunity and found out they're just a number, are now going to come here and at least build upon our deficiencies (with the) offensive line and defensive line," Curtin said. "I think those are the two areas where we struggled the most.
If you look at the yards per game that we gave up on defense (424) and you looked at the number of sacks that we didn't have (six), that's certainly something that I know the defensive coordinator (Trent Fredericks) wants to work on, and I want to work on. And then, offensively, our inability to consistently run the ball or consistently pass the ball; usually has one or the other depending on the game. So, a good offensive line, that's something that's very much in the forefront of my mind."
And on special teams, punter/kicker Diego Barahona will likely not be filling those duties next season but will move to O-line instead — a position he played in high school.
"We want to bolster our special teams (in the offseason)," Curtin said. "I think if you look at our special teams and specifically the punt game and the kickoff coverage game, we gave up a lot of points in those two areas. So, we're looking to solidify that, both kicking and (by getting) athletes to play on special teams. If we get a really good kicker, Diego Barahona (would) be so happy to just be an offensive lineman and not worry about kicking duties."
Getting stronger is another area that the Knights have to be next season. On more than one occasion, tacklers were dragged by opposing offensive players and gaining extra yards. It's something Curtin's noticed, too.
"We've got to get in the weight room," Curtin said. "We've got to get bigger, stronger, and faster. There's a difference between an 18-year-old freshman and a 23-year-old fifth-year senior in terms of strength, conditioning, and working within a program. So, we've got to close that gap, and that's one of the things that I'm most concerned about, making sure we get off on the right foot now that the season is over."
The bright spots are that Curtin's players have put in plenty of game reps now and that most will be back next year. Quarterback Darius Holly will graduate this year, but Jalen Dodd, who impressed later in the season after coming in to replace Holly midgame on several occasions, will be able to return. It's unknown yet if he will do so, however.
Now that most of the growing pains are (hopefully) in the books, Curtin and his players can continue their slow but noticeable climb to get St. Andrews its first winning season ever next year.
Reach Brandon Hodge at 910-506-3171 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @BrandonHSports.