FULTON — Days before his second season on the Fulton Hornets' sideline, football head coach Trey Barrow summed up his biggest takeaway from last season's 1-9 campaign.
How did the former Missouri punter encapsulate it? By repeating a refrain often uttered by the head coach of his alma mater.
"If something happens, if there's an injury or something unfortunate happens, we've got to be ready with 'next man up,'" Barrow said. "I hear Barry Odom saying that all the time. Coaching is about following your players so that they're ready to go, and that's something fortunate that we have."
Barrow and the Hornets hope that "next man up" mentality won't need to come into play as often in 2019, and they're hopeful that upward trajectory begins in tonight's season opener. Fulton hosts the School of the Osage Indians for a 7 p.m. kickoff at Robert E. Fisher Stadium.
The Hornets' 2018 was a futile one punctuated by eight consecutive losses to open the season. But it also revealed brief glimpses of potential undone, unfortunately, by injuries and ill-timed, on-field breakdowns.
Eight seniors and seven juniors return from Barrow's inaugural run, and that group brings with it the aforementioned mindset of filling in for a fallen teammate. Those fourth-year players saw disappointment and close calls and, despite the high loss count, are better for it.
"We have really good depth, some of them are really young," Barrow said. "But we've got to be ready to roll and handle adversity well and keep fighting."
No position embodied the 2018 Hornets' mantra/frustration more than quarterback. Five players stepped under center last season, including two skill players called in for emergency duty when injuries ate into Fulton's quarterback depth chart.
One of those wounded signal callers — sophomore Woodrow Foster — will start the season controlling the Hornets' spread-pistol offense. Foster began 2018 as the No. 3 quarterback, yet saw the field in the opener at Osage after injuries to Evan Gray and Tyler Sayler, respectively.
But after leading a pair of Fulton scoring drives, the injury bug caught up to Foster as well. The first-year QB suffered a season-ending ACL tear early in that same opener, giving way to the Hornets' uncertainty at the position.
Now recovered, Foster firmly entrenched himself as the Fulton starter and Barrow sees a lot of potential in his skill set.
"He knows where to go with the ball, he knows what reads to make and I just love watching him," Barrow said. "He's a good scrambler, he's fast, he's tough and he puts the ball where he needs to put it. Physically and mentally, as a sophomore, it was a year to learn."
After starting the Hornets' final three games, Sayler — now a senior — will back up Foster and also will be counted on to contribute to Fulton's wide receiver corps. Barrow cites Sayler's size and signal-caller perspective as plusses he brings to the outside.
"He knows the offense really well, and he didn't have to have that learning time of what the routes are or where he needs to go — he knew that stuff from playing quarterback," Barrow said. "He's going to be one of our bigger bodies, he'll be a good blocker on the edge, and will be good on anything we need to do quick."
Senior AJ Henderson and junior Will Privia join Sayler on the outside, along with sophomore Seth Sayler and freshman Courtland Simmons. A few traits stand out to Barrow when assessing his pass-catching unit.
"They've done a good job getting to a place where they're reading the secondary," Barrow said. "When we get completions, it's going to be big plays."
The Hornets' leading returning receiver — senior Zaylin McNeil — also happens to be their leading returning rusher and will start the season handling the bulk of Fulton's carries. According to Barrow, McNeil put on about 10 pounds during an active offseason and he'll look to fill the gap left by the graduation of 1,000-yard rusher Taeon Logan.
"Zaylin is a completely different player this year," Barrow said. "Last year, he'd dance around a lot and try to get to the outside — now, if he sees a hole, he's going to hit it. I'm not scared to give it to him 25 times a game, if that's what the defense will let us do."
Freshman Josh Reams will second McNeil at running back and brings a bigger look to the Hornets' backfield.
A pair of starters will anchor the left side of the Fulton offensive line in seniors Ethan Medrow and Emareion Clark. Medrow was a model of consistency at the tackle spot last year for Barrow, a trajectory he hopes Medrow builds on.
"He's a really big body, really smart and gotten a lot more physical than he was last year," Barrow said.
Clarke's offseason physical transformation has left him as a different and more effective player, in Barrow's opinion.
"Emareion has dropped 35 pounds. He weighs 295 now and he's stronger than he's ever been, he's quicker than he's ever been, and he's got a motor — he doesn't get tired as easily," Barrow said.
Sophomore Cameron Lee slides into the center spot, while the Hornets' right side will be manned by sophomore guard Cameron Schaefer and sophomore tackle Curtis Humphreys.
Barrow recalled the camaraderie and communication as being key strengths of last year's offensive line. With Medrow and Clarke as holdovers from 2018, Barrow sees his line remaining a tight group going forward.
"We have a good amount of experience," Barrow said. "They're really young, but I think they're ready to step up and do some things this year."
Medrow, Clarke and Schaefer will play integral parts of Fulton's front when the Hornets flash their base 4-4 defense. Medrow and Schaefer will occupy the end positions, while Clarke will man one of the tackle spots. Seniors Trevor Walton and Jacob Weaver, and junior Braden McNeil will funnel into the other tackle spot to solidify the Fulton front.
Tyler Sayler and sophomore Josh Dunmire will patrol the middle of the defense from their linebacker positions. Outside linebackers will also play a hybrid safety, with Simmons and Seth Sayler getting those looks.
Zaylin McNeil returns as a starter at one cornerback position, with Privia at the other and Henderson at the safety spot. The Hornets' defense was gouged by most running attacks in 2018, a trend Barrow wants to see all parties on that unit improve.
"That will be critical to our defense," Barrow said. "I think we'll be a much better tackling team than we were last year — we have much different responsibilities this year than we did last year and I think our team is up for the challenge."
Senior Zack Fortman — sharing time with the Fulton Hornets soccer team — will handle kickoff and placekicking responsibilities.
With Osage trotting out its traditional split-back set and defensive looks tonight, there's nothing on the field this Hornet group won't have seen before. What Barrow wants out of his team is to take the field self-assured in its abilities and adept in its skills.
Do that, and Barrow likes Fulton's chances — no matter who the next man up may be.
"How competent you are is directly related to how confident you are," Barrow said. "Getting better at our positions and knowing what to do well will give them confidence going into the season."
Notes: Fulton will stay in Class 3 District 4 this season and will be joined by Lutheran: St. Charles, Mexico, Moberly, Orchard Farm, St. Charles West, Winfield and Wright City.