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Area Game of the Week -- Norton not short on returning talent

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Norton High School returns just two offensive and three defensive starters from a 7-3 Class 3A playoff team in 2012. The Bluejays, among other positions, lost a quarterback, and Shrine Bowler and multi-purpose threat Jacob Brooks, plus their top seven tacklers. But Norton has solid numbers with 51 players, returns several all-league players and plenty of talent.

Norton's makeup -- whether it has some elite players emerge or has a solid unit across the board -- won't receive an answer until at least Friday night in the season opener at rival Smith Center.

"We have got several kids that can play," eighth-year Norton coach Lucas Melvin said. "They are all about the same level, which I think is a good thing. I feel like we have got some depth in some areas, where in other areas we don't have as much depth. I feel like there is a lot of kids that could help us, but that's still yet to be seen."

The Bluejays, defending MCL champions, enjoyed a four-win improvement from a 3-6 mark in 2011. Senior center/defensive lineman Cole Renner (40 tackles) and junior nose guard Stewart Whitney each collected honorable mention all-league honors last fall.

"We don't know who is going to emerge as one of those guys who is maybe going to be a little more standout," Melvin said.

"I am content with having a bunch of guys that play hard, too. Hopefully that's what we have."

Melvin labeled his fall camp "pretty good" and said his squad has had to combat the heat. Because of the unusual late start, Norton started school before the Bluejays got to start two-a-days.

Norton has continued to practice in the afternoon, but has been aware of how players performed physically in the conditions. Junior Kendall Miller, the JV quarterback for a couple of seasons, and sophomore Jordan Dole, a move-in from Nebraska, have battled for the position. Melvin said the position is "still up in the air." Melvin didn't rule out both players seeing some time.

"They are both pretty talented kids, they both have the potential to do some good things," Melvin said.

At running back, senior Tanner Furbush and Austin Hager are expected to see time. Furbush collected 160 yards and three TDs, two in a season-opening win against Smith Center. Hager, the starting kicker, delivered 21 extra points and six field goals. They are part of an 11-man senior class for Norton.

"He is a talented kid, pretty tough, physical kid," Melvin said of Furbush. "He is going to have to be a leader for us and step in and do a lot of things for us."

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Renner will be a key player for a defense that has annually ranked among Class 3A's best units. Norton has allowed more than 20 points per game just once in Melvin's tenure.

"Cole is going to have to be a big leader on both sides of the ball," Melvin said. "Offense and defense. I think he is ready to do that. I think he did a good job last year. We look for him to kind of pick up where he left off and keep going."