By Andy Krutsinger, Mt. Pleasant News
The 2017 Mt. Pleasant football season was fairly up-and-down. The Panthers had a 6-3 record and went 4-3 in the district, losing only to the top teams in the league.
When the Panthers were at their best, their defense was playing sharp. Mt. Pleasant had one of the best defensive teams in the area and that was a key factor in their six victories.
The Panther defense gave up 16 or fewer points on seven different occasions, with their only blemishes coming against playoff teams Solon and Oskaloosa. The defense was especially good on the road, giving up less than 10 points per game in their four road matchups.
Much like the offense, Mt. Pleasant?s defense will need to replace a good chunk of big playmakers, but there are still a few big names coming back in 2018.
Mt. Pleasant had five players finish with 30 or more tackles in 2017. Their top two tacklers, Colby Potts and Luke Van Nyhuis, were lost to graduation, but a trio of seniors will be back to lead the way.
Tucker Johnson is the leading tackler among returners. Johnson had 40.5 tackles last season as a defensive back, and will see even more contact this year as he is expected to play some linebacker.
Johnson is still listed as a defensive back, but whether he?s playing back or not, the majority of the secondary is all new, with non-starters from last year stepping in to starting positions.
?It?s a whole new fresh secondary,? Johnson says. ?They?re going to have to step up and really work.?
Although the secondary is inexperienced, Johnson says the young guys have done the work they need to prepare, noting a fellow safety who will join Johnson on the back line on Friday night.
?There are a lot of returning players who were second-string last year, but there are a few that have been (stepping up),? Johnson says. ?Like Brody Bender, he?s filling in at the safety spot. They?ve all done well so far, learning everything and really learning in practice and doing well.?
Johnson is joined by James DeMeyer, who finished 2017 with 37.5 tackles. The now senior linebacker led the Panthers in takeaways last year. He lead the team three fumble recoveries, one of which went for a touchdown, and co-lead the team with two interceptions and 46 interception return yards.
He and Levi Puig (30.5 tackles, two fumble recoveries) will lead a linebacker group that looks to be the strength of the defense again this year.
The defensive line will see a lot of new faces but DeMeyer says an increase in size up front should benefit Mt. Pleasant this season.
?We should be pretty decent,? DeMeyer says. ?We should be able to stop the run pretty well. I feel like we?re bigger up front than we were last year. We have more mass up there.?
DeMeyer says it?s ?next man up? for the fresh faces up front, but that the Panthers can still have a good year if they do what they did last year, play as a unit.
?We worked well as a team,? DeMeyer says. ?We all pulled our weight. I expect the same this year. All together, play as one.?
DeMeyer points to week two at Pella as a game he?s looking forward to, and one that will test the defense to its core.
Mt. Pleasant?s opening-day opponent, Clear Creek-Amana, had their struggles last season, but with players filling in at new positions, Friday night should be quite a test for the new-look Panther defense.