This time last year, Mansfield High was preparing to enter a season with only a handful of returning starters and tempered expectations due to its relative lack of experience. With camp starting this week, the Tigers have far fewer questions marks than in 2013, and thus some raised expectations.
“I think we had some very big wins to get us into the playoffs and I thought we played pretty well against Waco Midway with as young a team as we had,” head coach Jeff Hulme said. “I don’t know if we maxed out, but I think we exceeded expectations for us, and that’s always a good thing. It’s always good to be better than people think you’re going to be. That sort of transitions into this year, and I think this year we’re expected to do something. So there’s sort of the dilemma that now we have to live up to expectations and try to play as good as we think we can be.”
With about half of the offensive and defensive starters returning, as well as a number of players who saw significant time as underclassmen last season, the Tigers should hit the ground running. And speaking of running, which Mansfield likes to do, it helps to have a stable of backs, and Hulme has that.
Julius Lewis and Emmanuel Esukpa both return this season. Lewis, the smaller and quicker of the two, chalked up more than 1,300 yards last year as the team’s leading scorer. Esukpa has more size and is expected to carry a heavier workload this season. Add to the mix sophomore Kennedy Brooks, who Hulme expects to impress in his limited role, and the Tigers are set at tailback. What the coach likes best isn’t even their physical tools.
“[Lewis and Esukpa] are two really good, unselfish players,” Hulme said. “They don’t really care who touches the ball. They know when it’s their turn to touch the ball that they’re going to be fresh and strong. They’re each other’s biggest cheerleader. To me, what makes them unique is that they’re tremendous teammates to each other.”
Esukpa agrees, and thinks it’s probably a misnomer to say they’re competing for playing time.
“It’s not even like a competing thing,” he said. “It’s more like we’re just sharing.”
Handing the ball to the trio of backs will be Aaron Funk, who saw time under center last year, giving Mansfield and experienced signal caller.
“I think that’s a great start offensively. In the spring we were able to find some receivers. We’re real excited about the receivers we’ve got coming up. They’re young but showed a lot of promise and talent in the spring.”
Of course, an offense won’t go far without some big guys up front, and as thrilled as Hulme is to have three productive runners, the linemen opening the holes are his unsung heroes.
“The thing that excites me just about as much as our tailbacks is our offensive line,” he said. “The camaraderie that these guys have had in the offseason and spring, I think they’re a much closer unit upfront than last year.”
The interior of the line is back in tact, including center Sean Gill and guards Ju’Nathean McAllister and Greg Davis, who may also see significant time on the defensive line.
“What they got to go through last year and experience will be very valuable this year,” Hulme added. “That unit, like most linemen do, grew a lot closer in the offseason. They don’t get a lot of credit and notoriety, so they just band together sort of like a band of brothers within a football team.”
The Tigers’ defensive pulse starts with linebacker Justin Middleton, an all-district performer a year ago. With Davis and fellow defensive tackle Chandler Carter, Mansfield should be solid down the middle.
“I’m excited about our defense, I really am. We’ve got some athletic kids and some kids who saw action last year and we’ve got some kids who are going to have to step up,” Hulme said. “The biggest question mark for us right now is that we’ve got to find a couple of defensive ends.
The defensive backfield returns experience at safety with junior Langston Evans and senior Sean Shanklin, the leader of secondary. Lewis will also moonlight at cornerback some this season, leaving Hulme confident in that group.
While Mansfield has some increased expectations for itself, it still must contend with its district, which produced a state champion and a state semi-finalist last season. Though renamed to 8-6A, it’s the same group of teams minus Timberview, which dropped down to Class 5A.
“It’s extremely challenging, but we also have to remember to have fun – especially all of our seniors,” Esukpa said. “Our high school football career is about to end, so we just have to try to have fun and play relaxed. We know we’re going to face good athletes who are big and strong. We have to play relaxed and just keep our heads forward.”
Mansfield opens the season Aug. 29 at Flower Mound Marcus.