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Patriots working on improving struggling defense

Ellender running back Justin Johnson (center) runs through the middle of the defense during a team spring practice in Houma. (Photo by Keyon K. Jeff/Correspondent)

-- Sixth in a 13-part series.

For the first time in several years, Ellender entered spring football practices without the crushing weight of mounting losses on their collective shoulders.

Behind a high-powered offense last season, the Patriots ended a 32-game winless streak by compiling a 4-6 record.

For Ellender to continue moving in the right direction, head coach Terry Washington said they need to improve a defense that allowed 367 points last year.

"Our focus this spring was to shore up our defense, get some depth and make sure these guys are able to compete every Friday night," he admitted. "We're looking for some football players on the defense side of the ball. That was our weakness last year."

Senior cornerback Jaharri Gahno said he has already noticed a difference in the defensive intensity in practices.

"We're more aggressive then we were last year. We got a lot of guys flying to the ball," he said. "We just have to keep working hard, stay in the weight room this summer."

The most important battles in spring practices will be finding players to replace the production of linebacker Wilshawn Jones and defensive lineman Justin James, both first-team all-District 8-4A performers last season.

Washington said he believed both positions will have to be filled by freshmen.

"Hopefully these guys grow up a little bit to step in and take those vacated spots," he said. "If those guys come along and do what they're supposed to over the next couple months, we'll be alright."

The Patriots offense has picked up where it left off. They return almost all the skill players that put up 326 points last season — quarterback Dustin Creppel and wide receivers Kevin Lucien, Jarred Turner, Thomas Johnson and Dan Mitchell.

One of the standouts in practices has been running back Justin Johnson, who will replace all-purpose, multi-threat Ralph Singleton in the backfield. He has impressed coaches and teammates by running through, around and pass would-be tacklers.

"Justin is a big-time player. He's a horse at running back; he's a beast," Creppel said. "He's a great addition to the team and is and a good replacement for Ralph."

To keep Creppel upright and open holes for Johnson, the Patriots have to fill some vacancies along the offensive line.

"We've got some guys we're looking at that will solidify the offense line. Hopefully, those guys can step in and do a good job for us," he said. "I think we can put together a better season than we had last year."

Ellender traveled to Baton Rouge Friday night to face McKinley for their spring game.

Washington said he hoped playing a big physical Class 5A team would provide a good test for the Patriots while also escaping without injuries to key players.

Still, it is also a gauge of how far Ellender has come over two weeks of spring practices.

"I'd like to see us win the spring game and keep making progress on offense line and defense," Creppel said. "I just want to play a good game and see us compete. If we do that it will be a success."

Coming Monday: South Terrebonne