PHOTO: Nolensville QB Brandon Wharton II (7) and receiver Wesley Jones (1) celebrate a touchdown during a victory against Tullahoma on September 29, 2017. / DEB SCALLY
By RUSSELL VANNOZZI
When Nolensville High School opened its doors in August 2016, only freshmen and sophomore filled the hallways.
This school year, the Knights have their first senior class and are set to hold their inaugural graduation ceremony next May.
That’s music to the ears of new head coach Paul Derrick, who is taking over for Will Hester after Nolensville finished 4-8 in its first full season of football.
“I think it really helps our program to have a senior class, because now the younger guys have someone to look up to and see how to do things the right way,” Derrick said.
The Knights topped Lawrence County, Tullahoma and Lincoln County last season, before defeating Livingston Academy 21-14 in the opening round of the TSSAA 4A playoffs.
Although Nolensville went on to lose to Maplewood in round two, Derrick said he believes the playoff run is something that can be built upon.
“We did a lot good things last year,” Derrick said. “The expectations have been raised because of the good things that we did.”
Experienced quarterback to lead Knights
Much of Nolensville’s success will hinge on the performance of senior dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wharton II. The 6-foot-4, 180-pounder enters his third season as the team’s starting quarterback and currently has offers from Murray State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
He’ll work closely with new offensive coordinator Pat Curran, who moved from Brentwood this offseason. Curran’s new scheme will utilize Wharton’s arm and spread the field more often than the team did in 2017.
“[The offense] has changed a lot,” Wharton said. “This year, it’s more drop-back [passing], and it’s a lot more explosive, too.”
Derrick and Curran are life-long friends that both attended Father Ryan and were later roommates while playing football at Austin Peay.
“I’ve known him my whole life,” Derrick said of Curran. “He’s a good football coach and a good man, and I’m excited that he’s part of our staff.”
Senior tailback Colton Dooley will again carry the load in the backfield after being the team’s workhorse a year ago.
Wharton’s top targets include tight end Timothy Stayskal and receivers Zachary Campbell, Wesley Jones and Tim Coutras.
Nolensville has senior-heavy defense
The Knights’ once-inexperienced defense is now loaded with seniors.
Senior safety Jack McWilliams will lead Nolensville’s secondary, while Stayskal, Dooley, senior Wes Miller and junior C.J. Ware will anchor the linebacking corps. Ware recently received an offer from Louisville.
Derrick, who also serves as defensive coordinator, will run a 3-4 defensive set to capitalize on Nolensville’s talented group of linebackers.
“Our kids are going to play hard,” Derrick said. “We coach them hard and we love them hard. Effort has never been an issue at Nolensville.”
Dooley said Derrick’s enthusiasm has helped change the team’s energy level during fall camp.
“With Coach Derrick, there’s a much different energy around the team,” Dooley said. “The tempo is higher and the energy at practice is a lot [better]. The [changes] we had in our coaching staff brought more energy [to] the team.”
Senior defensive backs Jones, Justin Phatsadavong and Colby Anderson will work alongside McWilliams in the secondary. Senior linemen Nick Yoshihara and Sam Chapman, along with junior Dan Rickert, will solidify the defensive front.
Schedule includes rematch with playoff foe Maplewood
Nolensville’s 2017 campaign ended with a close 26-21 loss at Maplewood on Nov. 10. The Panthers also defeated the Knights 26-20 during the regular season last October.
Nolensville will have a third chance at beating the Panthers on Oct. 11 in Nashville.
Before that rematch, the Knights open the season at Fayetteville on Aug. 17. Nolensville home games include Page, Spring Hill, Brentwood, Lincoln County and Marshall County.
The Knights must find more consistency and continue to develop their depth to have a chance at topping last year’s finish.
“We’re trying to develop some younger players and develop as much depth as we can,” Derrick said. “That’s going to be an on-going process every year.”
PHOTO: The Nolensville Knights run on to the field before a game against Summit last season. / DEB SCALLY