The 2020 Enterprise Wildcats were competitive in every game this season but in the end still finished fourth in Class 7A, Region 2 and still earned a first round playoff exit.
After two consecutive losing seasons – and no playoffs – in 2017 and 2018, the Wildcats have earned playoff spots for two consecutive years under head coach Rick Darlington but Enterprise isn’t prepared to just settle for making the playoffs.
“I don’t want to say we need make a run next year but we need to make a run,” Darlington flatly said. “That is coming from me. We need to make a run. In year three that’s when your culture has really taken root and this is who you are.
“The kids haven’t really played for another system and I feel like next year will indicate where we can stand in the state picture.”
Darlington called the Monday after a playoff loss the worst day of the year.
“The Monday after you lose picking up and turning in gear and not practicing while other teams are, that’s just the worst,” Darlington said. “Tomorrow will be better and next week when other teams have lost it will be better and you will eventually get over it, but you just hate it.”
The Wildcat coaching staff is already working on trying to make sure that they don’t have that feeling next season, at least until much later, and Darlington said it all comes down to continuing to improve the defense.
In 2019, the Wildcat defense gave up an average of 360 yards of offense, 31.3 points per game and almost 200 yards passing per game. In 2020, Enterprise cut those numbers down to 311 yards of offense, 101 yards passing per game and 25 points per game.
The Wildcat defense also forced 17 turnovers – compared to 13 in 2019 – and opposing quarterbacks had just a 41 percent completion percentage this season after completing more than 50 percent of passes last season. The Achilles heel, however, was the run defense.
After Enterprise gave up 1,877 rushing yards and 5.9 yards per carry in 2019, the Wildcat defense gave up 2,310 yards and 6.7 yards per carry this season.
“Overall we just have to get better on defense,” Darlington said. “We have to coach them better, coach them differently. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing I guess we’ll get the same results.
“When you look at the data from last year to this year there are some areas we got better at, some we were worse and some we were the same. Defensively, though, we definitely have to find a way to stop the run better and still defend the pass. Stopping the run has to be priority one, though.”
Darlington pointed to special teams as a big area of improvement this season but the Wildcats will need to replace kicker/punter Matt Sheahan next season. Sheahan was solid on field goals, PATs and punting this season but the biggest advantage he gave Enterprise was the 30 touchbacks he kicked into the end zone on kickoffs this season.
Offensively, the Wildcats improved in every category imaginable. The Wildcats piled up 3,004 rushing yards – improving over the 2,727-yard total from 2019 – while still passing for 1,531 yards. The Enterprise ground game averaged 6.5 yards per carry in the ground game this season, up from last year’s 5.2 yards per cary. Turnovers also dropped from 17 to 14 and third down rate improved from 32 percent to 36 percent, but is a number Darlington wants to see continue to improve.
The biggest question mark, though, will be replacing the production of seniors Josh McCray, Jared Smith and Cole Hooper in the passing game.
McCray finished the season with 28 catches for 440 yards and six touchdowns, while Smith had 20 catches for 520 yards and eight touchdowns and Hooper hauled in nine passes for 250 yards and one touchdown.
“Offensively we’re going to miss a lot of the production in the passing game from those guys but we have a lot of our running game back,” Darlington said. “We have some good young backs but we’re going to have to look at some of those guys on defense, too. We can’t just stockpile backs.
“Receiver will be the big question because we threw for some good yardage. I want to see us get better at the short passing game, though, and get our completion percentage up. Most of our passing game was down the field stuff, so I want to get better at the short passing game and get better at some of the things we’ve been doing in the running game.”
Sophomore running back Mykel Johnson rushed for 936 yards and eight touchdowns this season and freshman Keion Dunlap rushed for 214 yards and one touchdown on 46 carries. Dunlap has experience on defense, as well, having played cornerback.
Quarterback Quentin Hayes threw for 1,464 yards and a school-record 20 touchdowns with just six interceptions in his first year under center. He also rushed for 556 yards and four touchdowns.
McCray, though, will be a huge loss for the Wildcats and not just on offense. McCray compiled an eye-popping 1,819 all-purpose yards and 19 total touchdowns this season. He rushed for 774 yards and 11 touchdowns along with the 440 yards and six touchdowns receiving. He also completed two pass attempts for 35 yards and returned 19 kickoffs for 570 yards and two touchdowns.
McCray has been the “slash” player that many coaches dream of while at Enterprise having started at running back, receiver and safety on defense. He earned his first varsity start as a freshman in 2017 as a running back. In 2018, McCray moved to receiver and then played a combination of running back, receiver and safety in 2019. In 2020, McCray has served as the team’s primary kickoff returner along with playing tailback, fullback, wing back and receiver on offense. He also played in one game as a rushing outside linebacker on defense.
For his career, McCray has compiled 1,737 yards and 30 touchdowns rushing. He’s also caught 82 passes for 1,101 yards and 10 touchdowns receiving. McCray also completed 3-of-4 pass attempts for 88 yards and returned 29 kickoffs for 822 yards and two touchdowns. He also returned 11 punts for 108 yards.
On defense, McCray has totaled 41 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, four interceptions, six pass breakups and two quarterback hurries. He returned one interception for a touchdown.
In total, McCray has amassed 3,856 all-purpose yards and 43 total touchdowns in his high school career.
The Wildcat defense this season was led by senior linebacker LZ Leonard with 87 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks, while senior linebacker Tanner Rogers totaled 71 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks. Senior safety Jaylon Webter earned 71 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss and two interceptions with 13 pass breakups, as well.
While the departing EHS seniors take a lot of production with them, the character may be the biggest thing that will be missed.
“We’ll miss them, for sure,” Darlington said. “A lot those guys weren’t big in stature but have big hearts. They live and breathe Enterprise football.
“I just love the way those guys played for Enterprise. Almost all of them you would think as probably undersized and not that fast or not that strong but all of them played their guts out. We’ll miss those guys.”
As EHS moves into the offseason and will begin planning for spring practices next semester, Darlington said he wants to put more accountability on his players’ shoulders.
“We have to develop some leadership within the program and accountability within the players. We need to name some offseason captains and co-captains and let them run their teams and workouts,” Darlington said. “Make them accountable for workouts, for academics, community service and all of those things. We have to put a lot more things on the players to make things more player driven.
“Me and (defensive coordinator) Jed (Kennedy) have very strong personalities, so we are going to tell them what to do and they are going to do it, they aren’t going to buck the system, but sometimes when you’re telling players what to do they do that and not more.
“They have to take ownership in it for themselves and not just doing what the coaches tell them to. They need to be able to do the right thing because they believe it’s the right thing and it helps us win, not because they don’t want to get in trouble or yelled at.”