Andover Central senior Thomas Graham can sense the disrespect on the football field. As a 5-foot-9, 170-pound middle linebacker, Graham often is overshadowed by heftier, taller linemen.
“I’ve been small my whole life, and I’m used to it,” Graham said. “I feel people don’t respect me because of my size, and I use that as motivation.”
Graham is impossible to ignore, though — he had 172 tackles in 2014 — and is one of multiple playmakers returning for the Jaguars. Also back are quarterback Peyton Huslig, running back Jordan Birch and receiver Darraja Parnell.
“(Graham) is relentless. He flies. He never stops,” Jaguars coach Tom Audley said. “He never thinks he’s out of the play. He has an attitude that he’ll go from ‘Hut!’ to the whistle. Every time.”
Audley moved Graham from outside linebacker to the middle after the 2014 opener.
“We usually don’t put a guy that small at middle linebacker, but it allowed him to play on both sides,” said Audley, whose team advanced to the Class 4A-Division I quarterfinals.
Huslig, Birch and Parnell have put on more muscle and speed, with Huslig adding nearly 30 pounds in the offseason after he had 2,355 passing yards as a junior.
“He throws the long ball very well, but he does a good job of narrowing down his reads where he’s not trying to do too much,” Audley said.
Birch, the defending Class 5A 110 hurdles champ, has added 10 pounds without losing any speed, Audley said.
“At the end of last year, he got the fact that he could put his shoulder down,” Audley said. “He’s not afraid to mix it up. The hard work he’s done in the weight room, he’s a different cat.”
Parnell, who has made a non-binding commitment to play basketball at Central Arkansas, didn’t play football as a freshman or sophomore. Audley said it took Parnell, who had 939 receiving yards, until midseason to get into football shape.
Audley expects no such delay this season.
“He’s dripping with athleticism,” Audley said. “He’s a very talented kid. If he was on the football market … there were a lot of people who had interest in him last winter. But he’ll play basketball. That’s where his love is.”