“I feel like we need to keep moving forward, and as long as we keep getting better, we’ll be a lot tougher team to compete with than we have been in the past,” sophomore running back-linebacker Conner Patterson said.
And even though last year’s nine seniors and the team they led raised the bar at Lincoln, the players who replace them believe they can raise it even higher.
“We all know that we can do just as much as they did or more,” junior cornerback Trevor Gaines said.
“I think we’ve grown a lot stronger than we were last year, and we’re more focused on our goals and what we’re wanting to accomplish,” senior running back-defensive tackle Austin McClure added.
Of course, that’s just what Settles wants to hear.
“The lack of experience is going to be a challenge, but I think the difference with this group is the mindset, the mentality. They know what’s expected of them,” he said. “We’ve asked more out of these kids than the previous kids we’ve had at Lincoln County, and what they’ve done in the weight room and conditioning has brought a lot of confidence to these kids.”
The players said the emphasis has been on strength and conditioning during the offseason.
“I think we work harder than we did last year,” Gaines said. “We’re 10 times stronger.”
They are also, however, largely unknown. Only four starters return on offense and five return on defense, meaning there will be many untested players on the field on opening night.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces this year,” Settles said.
Junior defensive end Alex McGuffey said he knows Lincoln fans aren’t quite sure what kind of team they’ll get this fall.
“But they definitely think we have the potential to go far this year,” Patterson said.
Whether that happens will depend largely on how well the Patriots play up front. The lines are strong, though Settles said he’ll play more players both ways than he likes because of a lack of experience.
Those players will likely include senior Chris Luster at center and defensive tackle, junior Logan Smith at guard and defensive end and junior Tyler Case at offensive and defensive tackle. Senior Austin Cress returns at tight end, last year’s starting center, Senior Zack Brown will move to tackle or tight end, McClure will be a mainstay at defensive end, and Settles said a group of backups who might be able to spell the starters for even six to eight plays a game will also play a key role.
“Our offense and defensive lines are very solid. This is the strongest group we’ve had, and they’re very tight. They rely on each other, and they understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Settles said.
Lincoln could also be strong at running back, where Patterson, senior Logan Martin and sophomore T.J. Torres will replace 1,691-yard rusher Deon Shannon.
The Patriots return an experienced quarterback in Justin Hubble, who played quite a bit last year as a backup, and a talented sophomore behind him in Dalton Godbey. They also have an experienced and improving kicker in junior Boone Baird.
Settles said a number of other young and/or inexperienced players are primed to step up, including junior wide receiver-cornerback Deonte Coulter, freshman wide receiver Gerald Miller and sophomore offensive tackle Andrew Wilks.
But he said he also knows that it won’t always be a smooth transition for players who fill the holes.
“Being a young team, I know we’re going to face some adversity, but we do have some good seniors leaders who will make sure the younger guys follow them,” Settles said.
Gaines said last year’s seniors showed the way by leading Lincoln to its first postseason win in four years, and this year’s team is ready to follow their lead.