FULTON — Fulton coach Trey Barrow knows the skill level his Hornets have in the backfield and on the perimeters.
Barrow has hinted at it and applauded when it materializes on the field.
The goal now — as the halfway point of the 2019 season has come and gone — is to see it all put together to ignite a strong finishing kick.
Fulton (1-4, 1-2 North Central Missouri Conference) will look to find that offensive "A-ha!" moment against a familiar and frustrating foe. The Hornets hit the road tonight for a trip to Hannibal and an NCMC clash against the Pirates. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
As stated before, Fulton isn't lacking playmakers. That fact was evident when freshman Courtland Simmons slid over from wide receiver to quarterback in place of injured sophomore Woodrow Foster two weeks ago. Simmons responded with 300 total yards and four touchdowns to help lift the Hornets to a 38-34 NCMC win against Moberly.
He wasn't nearly as productive last week against Marshall. Simmons' production dropped by nearly 80 percent, finishing with just 61 total yards in the Hornets' 48-8 NCMC home loss to the Owls.
Another week under center means more tape of Simmons for opponents to study, evidenced Marshall's defense selling out to contain him. With Fulton's remaining opponents likely to follow suit, the rest of the Hornets' offensive talent will need sustained efficiency to loosen things up for Simmons.
"We're at a point now where it's Courtland's third game at quarterback, he's getting more comfortable back there, he's throwing the ball a little bit," Barrow said. "By being able to distribute the ball around, it forces teams to take focus off of Courtland and give him space."One guy who will be looked to is Simmons' backfield mate, running back Zaylin McNeil. Coming off his second 100-yard rushing performance in three games, McNeil's experience as an outside and slot receiver — as well as his vision — makes him valuable with the ball in his hands.
"Marshall tried to take Courtland away, and by doing that, it allowed Zaylin to run around a bit. I just have to remember as a play-caller to keep calling his number," Barrow said. "A lot of times, we rely on our offensive line to open holes and for Zaylin to make plays.
"He shows great vision and patience in the backfield, and getting him the ball is one of our objectives."
Though not likely to rack up as many carries as McNeil, senior Tyler Sayler's versatility can't be understated. He's stepped in as a backup quarterback on two different occasions, has lined up at receiver and is more regularly seen as the H-back in the Hornets' pistol formation. His experience and athleticism at each of those spots is an asset and provides another offensive option for Fulton.
"He's kind of a jack of all trades — he can do it all," Barrow said. "Tyler has had to prepare for anything in a game where he's playing middle linebacker and flying all over the field, to being calm and cerebral to play quarterback, to ramping back up to play H-back.
"He does it because he's an athlete."
Simmons' ability to put defenses back on their heels will also predicate on his consistency as a passer. He has connected with his trio of junior receivers — AJ Henderson, Will Privia and Seth Sayler — at one time or another the last two games, and will go a long way toward taking the focus off himself by re-establishing those rapports.
Henderson leads the team in touchdown catches and yards and was on the receiving end of Simmons' only touchdown pass, an 84-yard catch-and-run against Moberly.
"He's a playmaker who can score anytime he gets the ball," Barrow said of Henderson. "We just have to find ways to get it to him."
Privia can move the chains, though he does have a touchdown reception of his own this season. Seth Sayler, meanwhile, provides a big, versatile target who is willing and able to line up anywhere and run whatever route is needed.
The Hornets produced just 208 yards of total offense last week against Marshall, a figure it will attempt to build on against a Hannibal team that will look different than the ones in years past. Gone is the Pirates' trusty veer-option running attack, replaced by a shotgun pistol scheme similar to that of Fulton's.
Hannibal (2-3, 2-0 NCMC) comes in off consecutive 40-point outings in conference victories against Mexico and Kirksville, respectively. Sophomore quarterback Courtland Watson guides the Pirates' offense. He's flanked by junior running back Damien French, who tallied 210 yards rushing and five touchdowns last week in a 40-27 win at Kirksville
The Pirates' offensive philosophy leans more on the passing game than in previous years. For the Hornets, that means relying on the last month or so of seeing balanced offensive approaches to inform their defensive game plan.
The top priority, still, will be bringing out the best at each skill position to get the offense humming.
"We have to approach it as we normally would with a great week of practice," Barrow said. "We have our work cut out for us this week, but the best thing we can do is crank it up at practice."