It was easy to understand the brightest spot in Columbus North’s 3-7 football season.
The Bull Dogs rushed for 2,506 yards, the second-most in program history.
“That was No. 2 all-time,” North coach Tim Bless said. “And they knew we were coming.”
A solid running game always has been a staple of North football, but in 2013 the Bull Dogs lacked a passing game to help with play-action. North’s passing accounted for 105.8 yards per game, and it wasn’t enough.
Other areas suffered as well, as North had to execute game-plans to perfection to win or be competitive.
“We were inexperienced (14 seniors), by and large,” Bless said. “You can’t replicate that Friday Night Lights speed and intensity. It’s completely different even though you practice hard. A ton of things are different, such as the urgency of each play.
“It was frustrating for all of us, but we stayed close-knit through all the ups and downs. It said a lot about these young men.”
Bless knew going into the season that he didn’t have enough break-away threats, players who could score from anywhere on the field. Wide receiver Weston Moore, who caught 11 of his team’s 12 receiving touchdowns, was North’s biggest offensive threat and he really wasn’t a speed guy.
North had to fight for every yard.
“I’m an eternal optimist,” said Bless, who was therefore disappointed by his team’s record. “I was told by several people, ‘Good luck, you are going to struggle.’ But we took that as motivation and a challenge.”
Even though the team fell short of the players’ expectations, Bless said it was nonetheless a great experience.
“We just had a very good team meeting,” Bless said. “Each one of our seniors stood up and talked about their experience. It was overwhelmingly positive and that’s cool. They talked about how important Bull Dogs football was to them.
“The other thing that I took from that meeting is that our underclassmen are hungry.”
With 15 returning starters next season, including team captain Josh Holt, and offensive line leader Ezra Followell, the program could see a quick change of fortunes.
“I am very anxious to watch the first months of our off-season program,” Bless said. “We are going to have the weight room open and we are going to be out on the field Tuesday. We normally take three weeks off.”
Among those returning will be Mitchell Kelley, who took over late in the season as the Bull Dogs’ quarterback. Will he be the starting quarterback in 2014?
“I’m not ready to answer that question,” said Bless, who noted that some new blood will enter the equation. “But Mitchell brings us a dynamic presence. He is very good with the ball in his hands.”
Kelley has various injuries throughout the season that cut short his sophomore year.
“He was completely healthy so sporadically that it was hard to tell how fast he is,” Bless said. “He could be our fastest player and he has that special awareness where he can attack openings. He is decisive.”
Another key returning player is Holt, who rushed for 990 yards in six games and was a starter on defense and led North with 54 tackles.
“What makes Josh so special is his relentlessness,” Bless said. “It’s a trait you want all over the football field. But it’s not ideal to have him carry the ball 27 times a game and to take 66 snaps of defense.”
Bless is excited about the future of sophomore defensive lineman Brice McDaniel, who was the team’s second-leading tackler with 49 and top sack man with four. “Obviously, he has a big future,” Bless said.
Unfortunately, the Bull Dogs had five sacks as a team, so Bless has to find ways to put pressure on quarterbacks.
Followell has emerged as a top-flight offensive linemen who is expected to lead the off-season effort in the weight room and with conditioning.
Coaching-wise, Bless said everything the staff does will be evaluated.
“Whether or not you are coming off a 3-7 season, a head coach critiques every year,” Bless said. “That’s what we are going into now. We are going to be looking at a lot of factors that led to our successes and failures. We want to make the best decisions for the program’s sake.
“We’ve got a pretty good track record for what we do. We’ve been successful. But is there a better way?”