There were some pretty heady times around the South football program early last fall.
After a surprise, 4-0 start to last season, the Titans had everyone’s attention. And a stretch of mostly winnable games ahead of them.
Then the bottom fell out. South ended the season by losing four of its last five games and ended up with plenty of questions about their resolve once adversity hit.
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“I hope we learned from it, because we’ve talked about it a lot,” South coach Kevin Steiner said. “We knew our schedule was going to get more difficult, we knew the games were going to get get tougher. And when it comes to that, the team that’s paying attention to discipline and the team that has more discipline is going to come out on top.
“We got kind of satisfied after four wins. Our focus wasn’t on the small things, it wasn’t on discipline.”
One year later, Steiner thinks he has a team that’s learned from its mistakes and will move forward with a new-found determination.
He also has every starter back on defense, and eight starters back on offense. Which helps.
“My question is how are we going to come out, energy-wise and focus-wise?” Steiner said. “Athletically, we feel like we can play against anybody. But will we focus on the little details? Because that’s what makes a difference in a tight ballgame. That focus on the small things that give you an edge.”
What will give South perhaps its biggest edge this season will be a player that dominates the edge — 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior defensive end Tyrekus Birch.
Birch, who has a scholarship offer from Southeast Missouri, racked up 16 sacks last season and returns to cause havoc with 6-1, 190-pound senior linebacker Torion Neloms. Both were second team All-City League picks in 2015.
“Starting off the season last year, everything is going really good, everybody is on the same page and clicking,” Birch said. “But in the middle of the season, when the schedule gets tougher and things got harder, people weren’t ready for that. When we got into the heart of our schedule we showed we needed to improve on our mental toughness and our heads weren’t on straight.”
Birch added 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason.
“I try to focus on my motor, because I know I’m not the biggest defensive lineman and I have to use things to my advantage, like my quickness and my conditioning,” Birch said. “I don’t like coming out of games. I have a passion for rushing the passer and I want to try and practice as much as possible and be out there, rep after rep, and try to make my opponent fold.
“Like I said, I’m kind of undersized for the position I’m in, so I’ve got to work harder.”
South’s biggest question on offense will be at quarterback, where Steiner has yet to identify a starter. Sophomores Evan Kruse and B.J. Richards are in the mix. Steiner said he could also use different players to run the wildcat offense.
Whoever earns the starting spot will have plenty of experience to work with. The Titans have a trio of All-City honorable-mention picks back on offense with senior wide receiver Jariah Taylor (6-5, 175 pounds), senior offensive lineman Brandon Enyart (6-3, 270) and sophomore running back Trevaunte Hunt (5-9, 205).
“You have to keep the big picture in mind, and think on why we fell off in the games we did,” Steiner said. “We could surprise a team or two early, but we knew it was going to get more difficult. Don’t be satisfied with what you’ve achieved. Focus on the task ahead of us and not what you did last week, because that won’t help you win this week. Stay focused on the opponent and not on what good or bad has happened in the past.”