When Derrick Thomas took over as Paul Laurence Dunbar's football coach a few months ago, he knew the sad state of the program.
As a guidance counselor at Dunbar, Thomas was well aware of the Bulldogs' slide into mediocrity: a 9-46 record over the last five years, including 13 consecutive defeats to their city rivals under three coaches since 2007.
What Thomas wasn't sure about was the effect all that losing had had on his players — veterans and newcomers — coming into this pre-season.
"They could've been really down; they could've had their spirits crushed," Thomas said. "But that's not what I've seen.
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"I've been pleasantly surprised by how upbeat the kids are. They're excited and motivated, and they want to be the ones to turn things around here at Dunbar."
The Bulldogs don't have an abundance of experience, but they do have a few veterans in key positions.
Blake Martin returns at quarterback. As a junior last year, he threw for 1,085 yards and seven touchdowns, and he led the team in rushing with 705 yards and 11 TDs.
Having to learn a new system hasn't fazed him.
"I've always been a real fast learner," Martin said. "A new offense comes easy to me."
Thomas has seen it:
"Blake is really progressing. We're very happy about how quick he's picked up the offense."
Returning at wide receiver are senior Jordan Wilkins and sophomores Emory Thompson, Brandyn Duncan and Cameron Pergram. They combined for 37 catches for 350 yards last season.
Anchoring the offensive line will be seniors Clint Bacon and Zane Williams. "We'll lean on those two veterans a lot up front," Thomas said.
Luke Bryant and Alec Tenfelde will also be on the line, along with Seth Haga, who moved from tight end to center.
"It didn't take much to convince Seth to make that switch," Thomas said. "His mind-set is, he'll do whatever it takes to help the team."
Haga said changing positions was "a good way to set an example for the underclassmen. Having a team-first attitude is the first step to get going in the right direction."
John Rose, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior, is expected to be Dunbar's top running back and will man the middle-linebacker position.
Rose played as a freshman and sophomore, but not last year. "John's come in like he hasn't missed a beat," Thomas said. "We're very excited about having him back."
Darien Hardaway, Antwan Williams and Jackson Armstrong will also get some carries at running back.
Dunbar will throw a lot of newcomers into the fire on offense, which means somebody might get burned early on.
"We can put them in situations in practice, but it's totally different when you actually get in a game and experience it," Thomas said.
The Bulldogs' defense will also have its share of rookies. Thomas said it's easier to learn that side of the ball:
"If you've got a kid who can fly around and likes to hit, defense is easy to teach."
Bacon and Williams will flip over and play some D-line, as will Bryant, Tenfelde and Braxton Wilson.
Rose and Haga will be at linebacker, along with Armstrong, J'Maurion Dunn and Andre Jones.
Wilkins, Thompson and Duncan will be in the secondary, along with Kristian Roberts and Jonathan Brown.
Part of Thomas' plan in revitalizing Dunbar football is to educate his players on the school's tradition, including its winning habit in the 1990s that featured a state runner-up finish in 1996.
Thomas, who was a Dunbar assistant in the winning days, has a staff that includes other former Bulldogs assistants Cisco Bryant, and Jim Franklin, and former Dunbar players Sinclair Jordan and Mike Sweat, in a way to reconnect to the past.
"We want the kids to know they've got something to live up to," Thomas said.
As for the players, they want to forget their recent past.
"We've got a bunch of guys fed up with losing," Haga said. "That's the main reason we're working hard and getting prepared as best we can."