Coaching at a school with decades of dominance spanning back to the early 1930s, Overton’s second-year man Josh Barton joined an exclusive club during 2012’s improbable district championship and playoff run. Barton is one of only three Overton coaches all-time to win at least a share of a league title as well as achieve a postseason win in their first season. It’s an honor he says is not lost on him.
“Overton is a school with an excellent athletic tradition, a tradition of excellence in all sports, and football especially,” he said. “It’s an honor to part of such a great tradition, and to be a part in helping this generation achieve success both on and off the field of play.”
Part of that success is what Barton and his staff describe as the “unfinished business” of taking the Mustang football team to the next level.
“We had a fantastic season last year, a season filled with all kinds of ups and downs,” he said. “From playing for an outright district title to facing the defending state champs, the kids rose to the challenge again and again. But we’re not content to just take one good season and leave it at that, we want to compete and get better with each season.”
Barton said while this year’s Mustang squad will miss last year’s seniors — several of whom continue their athletic careers on the collegiate level — he’s been impressed with the returning starters and underclassmen who are stepping into leadership roles.
“It’s not a ‘youth movement’ or anything but we are looking at several younger guys starting at keys positions, and that includes a handful of freshman,” he said. “We have a lot of kids who are going to still be learning their position as the season continues, and we’ve got a few who played a lot last that we’re challenging to raise their games.”
One athlete who looks to raise his game to the heights of greatness is senior two-way standout Jamal Kelly (6-2 225, 4.7/40).
“Jamal was a clutch performer for us on defense last year, playing most of the season with a cast on his arm but still leading the team in tackles,” he said. “Then coming in late and rushing for over 500 yards in just a few games […] we’re counting on him as a senior leader of this team.”
Joining him will be returning starters Eric Hatton and Julian Herndon, both of whom put up impressive numbers in their varsity debut last season.
Hatton, a junior, saw plenty of carries from the halfback position. But this year will occasionally line up as a wideout. Herndon, who was named All-Rusk County tight end a year ago, will spend more time in the backfield this season.
“For someone with Eric Hatton’s speed and elusiveness, we want to try and get the ball to him in space, where he can have a better opportunity to make something happen,” Barton said. “Julian will continue to be a receiving threat but we’re looking to run him some from out of the backfield this year too.”
Rounding out the backfield will be senior Michael-san Phillips, junior Adam Putnam, and sophomore Brenton Craig.
New signal-caller for the Mustangs is rangy junior Brayton Pierce, backed up by sophomore Daniel Gomez.
“We’re excited with how hard Brayton has worked, both in the off-season as well as this summer,” he said. “He’s an intelligent and tough young man, we’re confident in what he can do to help lead his team.”
Pierce’s top target will almost certainly be All-Rusk County senior wideout Damion Dennis (6-0 190, 4.7/40), joined by senior tight end T.J. Lewis, seniors Michael Charlton and Neil Browne as well as junior Jacoby Dennis and sophomore Zane Williams.
OHS offensive coordinator Seth Drennan added that, while he didn’t want to tip his hand tactically, every team Overton plays cannot help but “key on Kelly.”
“Jamal is a fast, physical running back that has to be taken into account by the defense,” he said. “But we’ve got other options on offense that will keep the defense honest. Jamal’s a big part of what we want to do on offense, but there are other arrows in the quiver.”
And just how far they fly depends largely on the Mustang front five.
Despite losing three senior starters on the offensive line, Barton says there is still talent and size to be found in the trenches. Senior Aden Williams anchors the middle, joined by senior Brayden Hankins (who missed all of 2012 with a knee injury) at guard. Solid senior transfer Judson Harkless expects to help out, joined by standout junior Seth Garrett (6-2 265). Seniors Jason Foster and Arryn Bradley round out the line.
“The line has continued to improve, to get better with each practice, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” he said. “It’s another area where we’re counting on a few of the young guys to step up and help toe the line.”
Not only on the offensive line, Barton said, but on both sides of the ball.
“We’re counting on these guys to continue to work, to know their keys and play within themselves,” he said. “Our emphasis is on playing sound fundamental football and having fun […] for a lot of our kids that’s going to mean playing 48 minutes.”
The Mustangs face a steep challenge in returning to the Class 1A playoffs — with district foe Maud expected to again vie for the league title and resurgent Detroit seething for revenge of last year’s shocking upset — but Barton said his team is optimistic and spirits are high around Overton.
“You don’t replace guys like Jesse Roach, K.J. Luster, and Greg Moore — or any of last year’s senior who’ve graduated — at the same time, this is a chance for another class to really leave their mark,” he said. “We’ve lost some great kids but we’ve gained some great one as well […] we’re excited about the future of Overton High School football.”
“This is a team game, everyone has got to play their part and do their job,” Barton added. “I think we’ve got a lot of potential, a lot of possibilities. I think if we continue to work hard and get better, we’re going to do well this season.”