North Surry football coach Danny Lyons didn’t know how his team would fare in its first year after an offensive overhaul.
Lyons is about to enter his fifth season as the man in charge of the Greyhounds, but last year he made an intense change to his coaching scheme. North Surry transitioned from a traditional I-formation base to a pass-happy spread offense tabbed as “Air-Raid.”
The change turned out to be a positive one. North Surry (7-5) finished third in the conference, made the NCHSAA 2A playoffs for the first time since 2012 and even produced the Western Piedmont Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year in quarterback Avery Smith.
Last year’s success has brought deserved confidence to the North Surry football program as it enters the 2016 campaign. No longer adapting to a new system, the Greyhounds are ready to take the next step and upend their local rivals while also challenging the likes of West Stokes and Carver for the WPAC title.
“We were tickled last year with how the season went, but really I think we were a few plays from being 9-2 instead of 7-4,” Lyons said. “We got things rolling again, but we could have been better, and I think that has our guys hungry this year.”
Lyons will have a proven star returning at the quarterback position. Smith led the WPAC with 2,439 passing yards and 36 total touchdowns, and he believes North Surry’s rapport with the offense could lead to even bigger things this season.
Not only has Smith improved this offseason, but he believes he has become a smarter quarterback with a firm grasp of the offensive playbook.
“We’re looking a lot better at this time of the season than we were last year,” he said. “Our receivers are all on the same page. When you’ve been running the same plays for two years, it makes things pretty comfortable.”
Smith did lose his favorite target, Colton Acord, to graduation, but the Greyhounds are still deep with returning talent at the skill positions in 2016. Smith plans to spread the wealth a little better this season, rather than feeding one receiver like he did.
Carson Todd, Chase Chandler and Reid Stanley combined for 66 catches last season and should get more targets from their quarterback this year.
Pairing with Avery in the backfield will be running back Andrew Smith, who rushed for 1,017 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing games due to injury last year. Coach Lyons expects Andrew to be a more consistent rusher this season and backup Sammy McMillan will continue to help North Surry provide balance on offense.
“We had balance last year, and I think that’s something that people don’t realize. The running game could take another step forward this year with both of those guys getting a year older and if our guys up front start to jell,” Lyons said.
The guys up front potentially hold the key to North Surry’s season. Avery Smith’s ability to run helps his offensive line, but Lyons wants Smith to have the luxury of more time in the pocket this year. The unit struggled against good defenses like West Stokes and Mount Airy, and three starters graduated in June.
However, Lyons has confidence the two returners could combine with his youth up front to become a stronger offensive line this season, in due time.
“Varsity is just a different speed,” Lyons said. “I think it might take two scrimmages and some non-conference games for some of these guys to settle in.”
The two returning linemen are guards Dustin Young and Ryan Eldridge. Young will be the only senior on the offensive line.
At center will be junior Alex Gudino, who played that position for the junior varsity team last season. The remaining two tackle spots are still an open competition among Hunter Crouse, Jared Tickle, Holden Huff and Carson Mauldin.
On the other side of the ball, Coach Lyons is excited about the potential of his defensive line, and it all starts with weak-side defensive end Nic Huff.
As a junior last season, Huff was third on the team in sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (11). He can rush the passer and stop the run, and Coach Lyons isn’t afraid to challenge him with some high expectations.
“Nic can be the most dominant defensive lineman we’ve ever had,” Lyons said. “He’s just got to bring it every play, and if he does that, he can be great. I think he’s taken that challenge head-on.”
Surrounding Huff on the starting defensive line will be Hank Ward and Dylan Stokes. Crouse, Elijah Odum, Chase Brintle and Zack Akers should all see time on the line as well.
Behind them stands an imposing group of linebackers with leading tackler Casey Hull leading the way. Hull paced the Greyhounds with 110 tackles, the most by a North Surry defender since the 2006 season.
Even with that impressive individual performance last year, Hull knows North Surry’s defensive success will come down to its ability to work together.
“We’ve just got to stay disciplined,” Hull said. “People can’t try to do their own thing, and if we attack as a team we should be pretty good.”
Joining Hull as an inside linebacker will be Nic Rodriguez, a player Lyons described as one of North Surry’s best JV players in 2015. On the outside will be linebackers Avery Simmons and Cody Gallimore.
North Surry’s secondary could be another strong unit in the Greyhounds’ defense behind junior Darius Duncan, who produced a team-high four interceptions and 17 deflections last season.
“Darius is a guy we’re going to put on the other team’s best wide receiver. This year we even feel like we could leave him alone with no help over the top, and that could really help us defensively,” Lyons said.
Duncan will see time as a receiver as well this season, and another two-way player, Andrew Smith, will be the other cornerback for North Surry.
Stanley returns as a starting safety this season and is the vocal leader of the defense. The other safety spot is still an ongoing competition, but sophomore Clay Shumate seems to have the inside track with some impressive performances over the summer.
The special teams unit returns starting kicker Izzy Garcia, but sophomore Ethan Evans is battling with Garcia for the starting position. Gallimore will serve as the punter for the Greyhounds.
Things get under way for North Surry on Aug. 19 with a road game against the Ashe County Huskies. The Greyhounds will play six non-conference games before challenging the two best teams in the WPAC, Carver and West Stokes, in the first two weeks of conference play.
North Surry hopes to compete with the Wildcats and Yellow Jackets for a WPAC championship this season, but Coach Lyons won’t allow his team to look too far ahead.
“We just have to take things day-by-day,” Lyons said. “I think when you start looking at the big picture, you leave out some of the small details that can take care of the big picture. We’ve got to trust the process.”
Reach Jackson at 415-4702 and on twitter @jacksonfuller16