MADISON If you’ve ever seen the movie Top Gun, you likely remember the one scene in which Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, turns to his close friend and fellow co-pilot Goose and rhythmically says “I feel the need, the need for speed.”

While MRA head coach Herbert Davis and his defensive coordinator Danny White didn’t exactly share an on or off-screen Maverick-Goose moment in the off-season, they both felt the need for more speed when it came to the Patriots’ defense this season. They shared the vision to get fast in a hurry.

So, safeties became linebackers, linebackers became defensive ends, and defensive ends became tackles. Speed has been emphasized and hoarded at every turn, and as a result the coaching staff has assembled a group of young, fast athletes capable of flying to the football, as well as making plays in space. The defensive transformation has been evident in the past two weeks as MRA’s defense has shined in a couple of scrimmages - allowing only two touchdowns against the three teams, one of which came against the Patriots’ reserves.

Davis and Co. hope that early success carries over into this season, which begins in earnest on Friday night when MRA hosts Magnolia Heights in the season-opener for both teams. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. at Patriot Field.

“This is the fastest defense we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Davis, who is entering his fourth season at MRA. “We made some changes, moved some people around . . . moved them, what I call down . . . to try to get more speed on defense. We’ve really always had the same philosophy, we just didn’t have the players to do it. This year we’ve got a little more of that, so obviously we’ve tried to make it work that way. We’ve got some more things to fix, but I really like the way we’re playing defense right now. I really believe it’s going to be hard to run the football on us.”

It’s not as if MRA’s defense was bad last season in White’s first season as defensive coordinator. After all, the Patriots held seven opponents to 14 points or less, and four of those scored seven points or fewer. In addition, White’s gang came up with 34 takeaways 26 fumble recoveries, 8 interceptions – helping set up 159 points from the MRA offense. However, the defense allowed an average of 40 points in MRA’s four losses, giving up a lot of explosive plays in the process.

Two of those four losses were to rival Jackson Prep, one in the regular season and the other in the MAIS Class AAAA Division I championship game at Mississippi College’s Robinson-Hale Stadium. Prep, led by fleet-footed running back Jerrion Ealy, won both games by the same identical score of 34-7. Prep has won five straight State championships the last three over MRA - and is vying for a state-record sixth in a row this season. It remains to be seen if MRA has enough to upend Prep this year. Or slow down Ealy, for that matter. But the injection of speed lining MRA’s defense may be its greatest hope, and give the Patriots a fighting chance.

“No doubt,” Davis said. “In the SEC everybody’s got to try to figure out a way to beat Alabama. Well, in this league you’ve got to figure out how to beat Prep. Prep has a lot of team speed in general, and then you have Ealy of course. He’s a hard guy to tackle because he’s so fast. You have to be able to match it.”

Several of the same players who were on the field in last November’s title game return this season. However, many of those are now in new positions. And, to a man, each has improved his

individual speed thanks to an off-season filled with lifting weights and countless hours of speed and agility drills. Some have shaved as much as half of a second off their 40-yard dash times.

“It’s something we’ve always done, it just seems like this year we’ve had a higher success rate with guys getting faster,” said Davis, who has led MRA to 29 wins in his first three seasons. “Almost everybody has improved their 40 time a good bit. Not only are they getting faster, they are getting stronger. When you can improve like that overall with every kid . . . most everybody gained at least a tenth . . . that’s huge. When you go from 4.7 to 4.6 or 4.6 to 4.5 that makes a difference. You’re talking about being able to tackle better because now you’re two or three yards closer when you’re running to the football.

“We’re doing a really good job schematically on defense, too,” Davis continued. “When you play a good team like a St. Martin or a Prep and you’re not sound fundamentally or schematically, you’re going to get some humble pie. We’ve decided to do more things, and we started working on that early. We felt like we did some good things last year, but we really couldn’t do everything that we wanted to do. And this year we’re doing it. We have a lot more of the package in this year. Hopefully, we’ll continue to keep getting better at it.”

Five starters return on defense; four were all-conference selections. That quartet is led by junior defensive end John Cartwright (6-3, 230), who was the unanimous choice as the defensive player of year in the league last season. Junior Sam Shufelt (6-1, 230), a linebacker a year ago, is slated to play at the other defensive end spot opposite Cartwright. They will be joined up front by tackles Ty Anthony (5-11, 260, Sr.) and Jake Flynt (6-0, 206, Jr.). Junior Ridge Futral (5-11, 160) now leads the linebacker corps after playing safety a year ago. He will be joined by newcomer Davis Ferguson (6-0, 185, Sr.) and 8th-grader Stone Blanton (6-2, 185). Senior Jace Correro (5-9, 178), pound-for-pound arguably the Patriots’ best football player, anchors the secondary. He is joined by talented newcomer Joe Perkins (6-2, 175, So.), who some have ranked as one of the top 10 sophomores in the state. Patrick White (6-0, 180, Sr.) and Chase Koski (6-1, 170, Jr.) are slated to start at the cornerback positions. Senior Lew Davis (6-3, 265) should also see considerable time along the defensive line after being sidelined a year ago with an ACL injury.

While the defense has performed better than expected in fall camp, the offense has not - at least up to this point. And while that’s not all that out of the ordinary it’s common for defenses to be ahead of offenses at this stage in the game at any level it is a little out of the ordinary when it comes to MRA. Davis’ offenses have averaged 30-plus points in each of his three seasons, setting many school records in the process. The Patriots scored 40 or more points five times last season, and they eclipsed 30 or more points eight times.

Franklin County held MRA scoreless in a two-quarter scrimmage this past Friday, and the Patriots didn’t look particularly sharp the previous week in a jamboree against Lamar and Washington. At least not up to Davis’ high-standards.

“We’ve got to fix it,” quipped Davis. “We’ve got to take it back to the shop and get us a tune up.”

Many of the same players return on offense, although record-setting quarterback Hunter Hulsey does not. Hulsey elected to transfer to Clinton after throwing for a total of 4,819 yards and 48 touchdowns in his first two seasons as a starter. Obviously, his absence has been felt. There’s no way

around that fact. Newcomers Pierce Smith (6-1, 175) and Brock Morris (6-1, 210) are competing to replace the departed Hulsey at the all-important quarterback position. Smith, a junior, played at Madison Central a year ago. Morris, the son of former Florida quarterback Kyle Morris, comes to MRA from Germantown.

Coming out of the summer, Pierce was definitely ahead in the race to become the starting quarterback. However, in the past couple of weeks, Morris has “narrowed the gap and really evened things up at this point” according to Davis.

“As of right now we’ll play both of them Friday night, and who knows maybe even the next week, too, to see who is going to make plays during the game,” Davis said. “It’s all about somebody separating themselves and making plays in the game. I feel like both of them can, it’s just a matter of which one of them is going to do it. At some point, we’ll have to go in one direction, one way or the other. For me, and the team, the sooner the better. Both of them are in the same boat really. Both are still trying to learn the system. We’ve thrown a lot at both of them this summer. This week, game week, we’ll start probably narrowing it down to a few less plays to try to help them out a little bit. It’s just a matter of both of them getting more comfortable in the system, gaining more confidence, and making good decisions.

“Both of them do pretty good outside of the pocket, our sprint out bootleg action they like that. And play-action. So you’ll probably see a lot of those sorts of things. We’ll do whatever we have to do to make it work.”

While the coaching staff is waiting for a starting quarterback to emerge, they are in the meantime also looking for the veterans to step up their respective games. Franklin County was pretty salty on defense, especially along the defensive line. Still, Davis was far from pleased with his offense, or lack thereof. So much so that he told his team there are no guaranteed starters entering this week of practice.

“We are starting over,” Davis said. “We are filming it. If they don’t do what we’re asking them to do this week, then they won’t be starting. To me it was more about everybody around the quarterback the other night. Do our quarterbacks need to get better? Yes. But when you run the wrong route, or don’t line up right, or you don’t give the quarterback time to throw it, or you don’t have a running game to go with it, it makes it hard.

“That’s what’s holding us back offensively right now. We’re not really putting it all together. Each kid is not doing his job and doing what he’s supposed to do. We’re not trusting our assignments and fundamentals. Much is expected out of our offensive line; we’ve got four starters back and we’ve got Will (Seabrook) coming in. So that shouldn’t be an issue. I think that group can be pretty special, but we’re not playing that way right now. I believe they will get there, though. Before it’s over, we’ll be doing some good stuff.”

Saahdiq Charles, a Dandy Dozen pick and four-star recruit who is now playing at LSU, is no longer around. That’s a big loss up front, no doubt. However, as Davis alluded to, four starters return. Matthew McCrory (6-2, 230, Sr.), will likely start at center. He is expected to be joined by guards Nicolas Rowan (6-3, 295, Jr.) and Seabrook (6-2, 270, Jr.) and tackles Hayden Barksdale (6-2, 255, Sr.) and Patton Robinson (6-2, 265, Sr.).

Gritty Jake Reeves (5-9, 170, Sr.), who has rushed for 1,337 yards and 18 touchdowns combined over the past two seasons, returns in the backfield. He will be joined by jitterbug William Milam (6-0, 170, Jr.), who rushed for 581 yards and eight touchdowns a year ago as a sophomore. Big-play wideout Lee Tanner (6-1, 185), who hauled in 62 catches for 1,048 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago, returns for his senior season. Perkins is expected to play on the outside along with Tanner, while senior newcomer Bailey Rademacher (6-0, 190), Patrick White (6-0, 180, Sr.) and Landes Purnell (5-10, 155, Jr.) and Rayf Vinson (5-9, 150, Fr.) are slated to rotate inside as slot receivers. At tight end, Davis has the option to go with the aforementioned Cartwright, Shufelt or Davis.

“It’s good to have Lee back, and now we’ve got Perkins to go with him on the other side,” Davis said. “Joe has really been a big pickup. We are expecting big things out of him on both sides of the ball. He’s a great kid, and a great teammate. Our slots are young and inexperienced. I really like our tight ends, though. You’re probably going to see more tight end formations with us this year.”

Breckon Young, a Mississippi State signee in track and field, will be delegated to punting duties only. Concussion issues from a year ago will keep him from playing at his customary wide receiver spot. Reeves and Carson Lindsey will handle the placekicking chores.

The schedule, as always, is a tough one. After opening at home this Friday, MRA will play five of its next six games on the road, including trips to Briarcrest and St. Stanislaus. Oak Forest also is new to the schedule along with rival games against Jackson Prep and Jackson Academy.

“The league is the best it has been in a long time,” Davis said. “Parklane has 26 guys coming back who are seniors now, JA is coming back to form, Prep is Prep, PCS is going to be really good again, and Oak Forest is Oak Forest; they’re always going to be good. We’ve got a tough schedule, no doubt.”

If the defense is as good as advertised, and Davis can find a way to jumpstart the offense with a new quarterback if anybody can it’s the tireless working Davis expect MRA to once again be a strong contender to once again make it back to the championship game. Most pundits agree. The Patriots were ranked No. 2 in The Clarion-Ledger Class AAAA preseason poll behind Prep.

“I really like this team,” Davis said. “I think this team has what it takes to win it, I really do. It’s all about playing together, being mentally tough and challenging each other every day to get better. I think we have the pieces if we will just keep getting better.”