'Horns begin to lay foundation for new season

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   MOUNTAIN CITY -- Like being a contestant on a current hit game show that's shown locally on two television networks, the Johnson County Longhorn football team is searching for answers to some tough questions.
   But with almost 20 seniors coming back, don't expect the Longhorns to be the "Weakest Link" when play starts in August.
   The Johnson County coaching staff spent spring practice trying to find replacements for graduating seniors, and Longhorn head coach Mike Atwood thought practice overall was a success.
   "Spring practice went good," Atwood said. "We've got a lot of young kids. We changed our offense a little bit, and got the young kids up to speed. We're real slow, but our weight program is going well.
   "We're a little stronger, and a little bigger. It went as well as spring could go. We had a lot of kids playing other sports, so we couldn't get everybody out."
   The position that the Longhorns have the most question marks is at linebacker, as Atwood has to fill three linebackers slots lost due to graduation.
   "We don't have any depth at middle linebacker," Atwood said. "We're having a hard time with that right now."
   Daniel Cranford will fill in at one of the linebackers slots, while Michael Reid will move from the secondary to outside linebacker.
   Atwood believes Reid will be able to make the adjustment.
   "He had a fairly good spring," Atwood said. "Moving to linebacker is a pretty hard switch. He's having a hard time, but he's a real smart kid. I think he will adjust to it fine.
   Another position that Atwood is trying to fill is the fullback spot.
   "We're having a hard time finding a fullback," Atwood said. "We have a lot of positions to fill, but I guess so does everybody else."
   The Longhorns do have a lot of things going in their favor. Most of the starters on offense and defense are back, and there were players who stepped up in the spring.
   "Aaron Payne ran the ball well for us," Atwood said. "Matt Dunn had a very good spring at defensive tackle and offensive tackle. He had the best spring of anybody."
   Payne's success at tailback was needed with the absence of Jonah Dunn.
   He tore his ACL last year in the final home game against Sullivan South, and is still recovering.
   "If Jonah can't come back we're going to be hurting," Atwood said. "He's a little slow. He's had his surgery, and he's fine. His knee is a little weak. With a young kid like that, mentally getting over it is the toughest part."
   Also having a successful spring was defensive end and offensive guard Justin Bishop. Bishop was moved to offensive guard from center during the spring.
   "Justin had a real good spring, but we expect that," Atwood said. "He had a real good spring at defensive end."
   Quarterback Adam Johnson will probably be putting the ball in the air more this season. Atwood thinks the Longhorns need to do that to be competitive in the Big Eight.
   "We'll have to," Atwood said. "It's easy to stop one thing, so we have to be able to throw it a little more this year."
   What the Longhorns do on defense will all hinges on the Longhorns finding another linebacker.
   "We might have to go to a five-man line, or some form of a five-man front," Atwood said.
   The Longhorns do have some holes to fill, but they had even more positions to fill last season. The 'Horns did that well, as they made the playoffs during their first season in Class 4A.
   With players like Johnson, Bishop and wide receiver Tommy Short back, look for the Longhorns to be dangerous in 2002.
   "We expect a little more," Atwood said. "We're hoping to repeat last year. We thought we should have won a few more games last year. We're looking to do better."