Aug. 29—BENNETTSVILLE, S.C. — Over the last few months, there was uncertainty about how good Scotland football would be in 2023, with starting quarterback Carter Revelle leaving and new coaches being brought in.
The Fighting Scots have seemed to put the lid on those concerns swiftly.
Scotland is 2-0 with wins against 3A East Regional final contenders Southern Durham and Terry Sanford, and head coach Richard Bailey said his team still has their best football ahead of themselves.
"I always expect to win, but realistically, when you have a tough schedule like we have, you don't know for sure," Bailey said. "Those are playoff atmosphere-type games that have playoff repercussions because of RPI ratings. We've got to continue to get better. I think I've seen some improvement with the things that we're asking the kids to do. I feel like they're buying into what we want them to do."
The difficult nonconference portion of Scotland's schedule continues Friday night when they head to Marlboro County (1-0) — a team the Scots have struggled to play well against in recent years — for the Battle of the Border rivalry game.
"They've only beaten us twice in the last 12 years, but we have struggled a little bit," Bailey said. "What's crazy is the two losses have come here in North Carolina since I've been here. It's always tougher when we play down in South Carolina, though.
"We haven't beaten them in games that we probably should have; even when we've beaten them, we probably haven't beaten them to the degree people think we should have. And so, that part is a little bit of just being a rivalry game. With rivalries, you could throw the records out; the people play a lot harder, and it means a lot to people."
Last season, the Scots fell to the Bulldogs 27-24 after a failed rally to win in the second half; Scotland had four first-half interceptions that put them in a 27-8 halftime bind and gathered just 207 yards of offense in the contest.
Bailey said the way his team lost was "extremely disappointing."
"We had four turnovers, two bad snaps that killed drives, and then we had the non-snap fumble debacle at the end of the game," Bailey said. "But you've got to give Marlboro credit. They had players make plays. They basically took advantage of the height advantage and had a good quarterback, and he hit some big plays on us."
That QB was Timoun Byrd, a senior at the time, but the Bulldogs now have Tashon Boatwright starting under center.
"(Boatwright) is a very good athlete; a lot like the kid that graduated," Bailey said. "Not quite as big as him, but a very good running threat and a capable passer."
Some top pass-catching options for the Bulldogs include wide receiver Justin Purvis, who is also utilized as a returner on special teams, and tight end Damon Short.
While those players have Bailey's attention, running back Coreyon Gregg may have his attention the most.
The senior RB had four carries for 117 yards and a touchdown for Marlboro in last week's 30-17 win over Cheraw.
"(Gregg) runs the ball hard," Bailey said. "He had several long runs Friday night. He runs through contact, and we're going to have to tackle well."
Gregg is also a linebacker on the Bulldogs defense and had 10 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks, and two tackles for loss against Cheraw. Other notable defensive players for Marlboro are linebacker Jarrell Williams, who unofficially had 10 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks, and four tackles for loss last Friday, and defensive lineman Josiah Benton-Lowe.
The sack numbers for Marlboro's defense are what Bailey wants to get to with the Scotland defense.
"One thing we've got to do is continue to pressure the quarterback," Bailey said. "We have not blitzed as much as I would like to in these first couple of games for various reasons. We've got to be able to do hold-up on the back end.
"The other thing is we've got to make sure we align. We have some alignment issues. That's really what's gotten us. People misalign and then have some mental breakdowns. It hasn't been the teams we played; it's been ourselves. And a lot of that's just being focused. Hopefully, I'll see a little bit more of that out of our defense this week."
The Fighting Scots offense has relied heavily on running the ball with Zay Jones early on, but that could change some going forward. To keep the defense honest, the Scots will pass the ball more.
"We've got to continue to expand the offense," Bailey said. "We can't ride Zay the whole year like we did these first couple of games. So, we need to diversify a little bit more and use Ji'San in the running game. We did that Friday, and he scored a touchdown. We're probably going to use him a little bit more with his legs but also continue to throw the ball more.
"We have good receiving weapons, so we've got to continue to take advantage of that. I would look for us to try to balance things out a little bit. Now we're never going to be some of these 50-50 teams, but we need to probably go from 80-20 to 75-25, or 70-30. So, we'll work on that a little bit and continue to try to expand the passing game."
An area that Bailey doesn't talk much about but feels needs improvement is special teams. Scotland has struggled with nearly every aspect of it, most notably allowing yards on kick and punt returns.
"While we've had some good moments with the game-winning field goal (against Southern Durham), we've got to do better kicking off and punting the ball," Bailey said. "We're going to have to get better covering those; (it's) not so much the kicking aspect as it is covering it. And so, we're going to work on those, and I hope to see some improvements with that."
Kickoff between Scotland and Marlboro is set for 7:30 p.m.