Wins have been tough to come by for Jeff Neal in his three seasons as head coach at Northwest, but last year's 4-6 finish and the crop of returning talent has those around the program extremely optimistic about the 2009 season.
The Knights struggled for consistency in 2008, failing to win consecutive games at any point of the season. The defense allowed 59 fewer points than the division champions, Edgewood, gave up. However. The offense only averaged 17.9 points per game and scored less than two touchdowns in five of their 10 contests.
Neal knows that he is going the team over the hump and into the Division II playoffs they are going to have to avoid bad stretches of play.
"We must learn how to win on a consistent basis," Neal said. "Taking it one week at a time and only focusing on the next opponent will be key."
2008 RECORD: 4-6, 2-3
COACHING: Northwest is the first stop as a head coach for Neal, a Roger Bacon alum. The school has gone 8-22 during his tenure, but progress is being made. Byran Flickinger calls the shots on offense where the Knights run the Gun Read-Option. On defense, coordinator Jon Sheehan incorporates a 3-3-5 scheme. Neal oversees the special teams directly.
OFFENSE: The team will rely heavily on its running game in 2009, led by returning back Nick Darby. He carried the rock 156 times for 740 yards and six scores as a junior. Preston Brown, who committed to UC primarily as a linebacker, will see an increased role at fullback in his senior season.
The Knights are strong up front on both sides of the ball, with many of the key players contributing on offense and defense. Guard Josh Hoying and tackles Anthony Davis and Devonate Ferguson return with experience under their belts.
Northwest struggled in the passing game early on in '08, but it did show signs of life once Cameron Bryant was handed the keys to the offense mid-season. He is far from a given, but the senior will be the early favorite at quarterback.
Nobody returning for the Knights had more than eight catches last year. Ismael Allen (7 rec for 176 yards) and Samuel Fowler (4 rec for 33 yards) are set to start at wideout.
DEFENSE: Defense is the strength of this team and it starts with Brown (6-2, 220), one of the area's top linebackers. After making an impact on both sides of the ball as a sophomore, Brown blew up in 2008. He finished with 27 solo tackles, 31 assists, four sacks while scoring two touchdowns. He knows he will need to step up in a big way for his team to be successful.
"Some major steps have already been taken for us to have one of the best seasons in Northwest history," Brown said. "I believe I will need to score more touchdowns, and be more of a leader this year."
Brown will benefit from playing behind a huge defensive front four. Noseguard Kirby Famble (5-foot-9, 224) will look to build on his 7.5 sacks in his senior season. Landis Coutler (6-1, 200) creates pressure from the defensive end positions and helps open holes for his teammates. Newcomers Tyson Cunningham and Todd Harrison are expected to make an impact right off the bat.
The secondary is one of the biggest question marks surrounding the team. Gone are Zach Brown and Terrell Graham, the team's top two leaders in interceptions last year. What's left is a crop of inexperienced and unproven players.
The unit as a whole will need to defend better against the Wing-T, a formation that caused them problems a year ago.
FINAL TAKE: If defense wins championships, then you have to think Northwest has a chance for success in 2009. The offense could hold them back though. The Knights will need to get more production in the red zone and find something in the passing game. There is little margin for error in the schedule. A four-game stretch against Little Miami, Turpin, Glen Este, and Edgewood will make or break their season.