The goal never changes.
The focus remains the same each season for the Madison Southern football team.
“What matters is November,” Southern coach Jon Clark said. “That’s been our motto from day one.”
Since he arrived at Madison Southern in 2011, Clark’s teams have had a tremendous amount of postseason success.
The Eagles moved beyond the first round of the playoffs in six of the past eight years, advanced to three region title games and played for the Class 5A state title in 2017.
Playing football in November has become a tradition at Madison Southern.
This year — perhaps more than ever — that approach of building for a postseason run could be important for the Eagles.
The delayed start to the season has left the Eagles, and every other team in the state, with much less practice time than usual. Teams were only allowed to put on helmets on Monday, which was just 18 games before the season opener.
“We’ve got to actually put pads on to see what everything is going to look like,” Clark said.
The Eagles return plenty of key performers, especially at the skill positions, from a team that went 7-6 last season and lost in the region title game to Covington Catholic.
There are some question marks, though.
Tobias Storm threw for more than 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns during his senior season while also rushing for almost 700 yards and 12 more TDs.
The Eagles will turn to a sophomore to take over under center.
Cole Carpenter appeared in four games last season against some very tough competition.
“He’s a smart player,” Clark said of Carpenter, who is his stepson. “He started against Boyle County and played some against Pulaski County. He played JV and freshman, so its not completely new to him. It helps that he’s a student of the game. He spends a lot of time studying the game. He just needs more live action.”
Carpenter attempted just 14 passes last season, but had a touchdown pass.
“We are trying to get as much chemistry as possible with him,” senior receiver Jonah Farnstrom said of Carpenter. “Even days we don’t have practice, we are throwing with him. We are just trying to get to where we need to be.”
The sophomore already has the confidence of his teammates.
“I think he will be ready for it,” junior receiver Walt Smith said.
Carpenter will have plenty of offensive weapons to utilize.
Junior A.J. Jones had 1,394 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns last season. He also caught nine passes for 196 yards and a TD.
Even though he is just 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, Jones is quick, elusive and smart.
“He is sudden,” Clark said of Jones. “He’s explosive and he’s got good vision.”
Jayshawn Etheridge was second on the team in receptions (10) and receiving yards (202) last season. The junior is set to join Jones in the backfield this season, but will also still line up in the slot at times.
“It’s a different experience, but we are all adapting to it,” Etheridge said.
The Southern coaching staff was able to move Etheridge into a new role because of the team’s deep, talented core of wide receivers.
Smith (41 catches, 861 yards, 10 TDs), Farmstrom (5 catches, 130 yards, 1 TD), senior Cameron Holbrook (4 catches) and sophomore Jackson Chambers are back, along with sophomore Mitchell Mills.
The Eagles also have plenty of options at tight end — including seniors Tyler Boots and Xavier Strothman and junior Zach Hess.
“I think we have more able skill players than we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Clark said. “We’ve always had one or two really good players. I don’t think we’ve ever had this many at this level — skill wise.”
Just who will be blocking for those skill players is still to be determined.
The Eagles have just one returning starter on the offensive line — senior Nate Pope — and as many as 12 players could battle for playing time up front.
“I don’t know who our starting five are going to be,” Clark said of the offensive line. “We will need some time to figure that out.”
There isn’t as much to figure out on the other side of the ball.
The Eagles return plenty of experience at almost every defensive position.
Seniors Clay Bunch, Levi Benton and Holbrook are three-year starters at linebacker. That trio accounted for 255 tackles last season.
Junior Brayden Carson also started last season at linebacker. Etheridge had 56 tackles last season with five fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown.
Smith had three interceptions at corner, while Chambers added five interceptions as a freshman in 2019.
Senior Tyler Boots (56 tackles, 2.5 sacks), junior Rocky Whitehead (32 tackles), Strothman, juniors Jace Williams and Alex Buttry are back on the defensive line, along with senior Dalton Judd.
“There is quite a bit of depth on that side of the ball coming back,” Clark said of the Southern defense. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a lot of returning depth on defense.”
Baylor Willis broke a long list of school records last season. The kicker hit 39-of-41 extra-point attempts and was 2-of-4 on field goals.
His graduation has left the Southern coaching staff looking for someone to step into that role.
“It’s probably the one thing that we have the biggest question mark,” Clark said.
As usual, though, Clark and his team are focused on long-term goals.
The Eagles have made the playoffs eight-straight years, but are set to face solid competition in a five-team district that also features Collins, East Jessamine, West Jessamine and Woodford County.
“We may not look great early on. Or, we might. I don’t know,” Clark said. “But, I know what we will look like in November, if we get to November.”