BY PAUL HINES
MT. VERNON —
The Rams football team will exhibit an influx of youth as it takes the field this season.
Several sophomores are expected to contribute for Mt. Vernon this season starting with a road test at three-time defending state champion Rochester on Friday night.
“That competition, we talk about it every day, is definitely healthy for our team and makes guys work and pay attention to detail and give great effort,” Mt. Vernon football coach Jared Shaner said.
A season ago as freshmen the incoming sophomores never tasted defeat. They enter a varsity squad that never experienced victory a season ago. Mt. Vernon lost all nine of its games during the course of the regular season. The Rams struggled on both sides of the ball a season ago and were outscored 324-142.
Despite the lopsided scoring totals, the Rams still created chances for victories. The closest opportunities all came against South 7 Conference squads.
Mt. Vernon's best chance came in week five of the season against Marion. The Rams were down a point and had a final drive to win the game but came up short. Returning running back C.J. Lloyd had three rushing touchdowns in the game.
The Rams also pushed Carbondale and arch rival Centralia. Mt. Vernon held 14-0 leads in both games before eventually losing.
The bulk of Mt. Vernon's returning experience is on the offensive end, although the Rams will trot out a newcomer at the quarterback position. Dylan Reeves takes over the signal calling as a junior. His older brother Clayton was a two-year veteran for the Rams and started every game.
“(Dylan's) done a good job for us this summer,” Shaner said. “(He's) very committed. He comes to everything, works hard, is in great shape. He has improved his skill set this summer.”
Behind Reeves is fullback Graham Henken, a junior. The two halfback positions could be a mix of players. Sophomores Braden Fitzjerrells and Drew Hester are in the group along with returners Demontez Miller-Grey, Lloyd and Robert Grider. Shaner said he was pleased with the group and competition at the position.
“Their knowledge, their assignments, there's some athletes that can get out and run,” Shaner said. “We've got a couple new sophomores who are pushing guys and some good competition.”
The Rams also have some experience returning on the offensive line. Four seniors – Cody O' Neal, Tyler Bradley, Josh Bourland and Eli Phillips – will all play roles trying to open holes for running backs and protect Reeves. Junior Alex Hopkins also joins the group.
One change for the offense will be Doug Gardner's role. A season ago Gardner lined up in the backfield as a half back, but the Rams have pressed him into wide receiver duty. Gardner has been playing the wide receiver position throughout the summer, adapting to the new position.
“He's really done a good job with that,” Shaner said. We asked him kind of early on in the summer as we were getting ready for team camp to move out to receiver. We're a little bit more thin at that position, we felt. Doug has great hands. He's a physical, strong kid, a good perimeter blocker.”
Mt. Vernon enters the season with a small rotation at receiver. Jacobee Marshall will miss the opening two games because of a suspension. Shaner said once Marshall returns there will be a decision made on how to move forward at the position. Week three could mean pairing both receivers or moving Gardner somewhere else in the offense.
“We'll just have to kind of evaluate what makes our team the strongest,” Shaner said.
On special teams the Rams will look to Lloyd as the kicker. Senior linemen Tyler Knutson and Tyler Bradley are vying for the snapping position. Fitzjerrells and Miller-Grey along with Lloyd, Jesse Green and Kenzell Rudd could be returning opponents punts and kickoffs.
The Rams biggest influx of inexperience comes on the defensive side.
“I think coming out week one against Rochester will be a test,” Shaner said. “Obviously we've talked about their football program and the success that they've had, and how good they've been the last few years. So those kids, it will be a new level for them.”
A pair of sophomores Brytan Bowers and Trevor Schubert are expected to be joined on the defensive line by Bryton Steele (junior) and Knutson. Bowers and Knutson will play on the ends with Schubert and Steele inside at the tackle spots.
The linebacking corps will be Andrew Hiner (junior), Jacob Williamson (senior) and Drew Hester (sophomore).
Gardner and Xavier Tyus (junior) will be in the safety positions with Miller-Grey and Fitzjerrells rounding out the secondary at cornerback. Marshall, once he returns, could play a role in the secondary rotation as well.
The Rams return their 4-3 structure on defense for the second straight season. Shaner said the four linemen and three linebacker scheme fits this group well, and the Rams have made a few changes from a season ago.
“We're into the second year of that, and we've tweaked a few things that we did last year,” Shaner said. “I think we've got some guys in positions that will be successful with what we're doing. So I'm definitely excited about that to watch our progress this year.”
Shaner added the two weeks prior to the opening game are all about preparation and evaluation.
“Each day we're reviewing the things that we've already got in,” he said. “We're tweaking things and making some minor adjustments. At this point, we're getting pretty close. We still have a few things on each side of the ball that we want to get in and just making sure that we're prepared as we can be in week one.”
Mt. Vernon opens the season on the road at 7 p.m. Friday against Rochester.