TORONTO — Entering his fourth season as head coach of Toronto, Josh Franke continues to set the bar higher than the previous seasons.
The Red Knights, although coming off a 5-4 campaign, hosted and won a playoff game, which marked the second straight year they were home for the first round. Hosting another this season will not be good enough.
“Barring injuries, I expect to be in the Top 8. Making playoffs no longer is the goal,” Franke said. “Making the playoffs now is the expectation. Now it needs to be getting a Top 8 spot or a first-round bye. You want to be playing for a regional final. We’ve hosted playoff games in each of the last two seasons. That’s now the expectation. We’re not rebuilding — we’re setting higher goals. We need to do that in order to grow.”
Toronto loses 13 seniors from the 2020 squad, including a huge hole left at the tailback spot. However, Franke has more than 30 players to begin this year, which is one of the highest since he joined.
“We’re pretty early in the game, but we’re cautiously optimistic,” Franke said. “Up front, we have a lot of big, strong bodies. On the outside is where we have some athletes. The downside to that is we do have some inexperience. We’re replacing a lot of key starters on both sides of the ball. We need those athletes and big bodies to learn quickly so we can get right after it right out of the gate.”
It also helps that Clark Hinkle Field is getting a much-needed makeover with turf and new opposing bleachers, just to name a few.
“The message will be very clear on opening day. They’ll be the first team to play on this brand-new field,” Franke said. “What’s the outcome of that game going to be? Who doesn’t want to win in that situation? Plus, we’re going from grass to turf, so it makes it even more special. It’s definitely energized the kids, and honestly it probably got a few more to come play.”
Coach Josh Franke on the upcoming campaign
Starting with the most important position, senior Aiden Mick will be the starting quarterback, replacing Caleb Leasure.
“He’s more of a mobile kid than Caleb was, but that by no means takes away from his arm strength,” Franke said. “He has tremendous arm strength and has really progressed. He might even have a stronger arm than Caleb, but he’s also extremely athletic. Caleb was a Pro South kid, whereas if Mick can’t beat you through the air, he’ll beat you with his legs.”
Mick’s backups are a pair of freshmen in Russell Dickinson and Zebulin Kinsey. Franke said Kinsey will serve as his Taysom Hill in the fact that he will run the wildcat formation and serve in a variety of different ways.
The hardest position to fill is running back following the graduation of Garrett Dozier.
“It’s hard to replace Garrett, especially because he was our starting tailback the last three seasons,” Franke said. “He was a very hard and physical runner, and right now we have a nice stable of running backs that we have a choice to make. It’s a very tough position battle. We have three guys we’re extremely comfortable with, and any of them can be starting for us.”
Those three are senior Avery Wiegand, who moves from the wideout, junior Zane Kinsey and sophomore Kam Baker. Freshman Jayce Nett will be utilized as a fullback when called upon.
Senior Tremendous West will lead the receiving corp. He began his high school career with Toronto, played at Edison a season ago and transferred back to the Gem City. He caught a touchdown pass during the season opener last year in Toronto.
“Now we’re hoping he can catch a few touchdowns for us and return the favor,” Franke said. “He’s having to learn the system, but he’s a dynamic player on the outside for the deep ball.”
Other options for wide receiver include sophomore Dom Bouscher at slot, freshman Aiden Filby, Baker and sophomore Nolan Dickinson.
The tight end will be senior Shane Keenan. Any backups are TBD.
“We hope a lot of people give Shane the attention he deserves because Tremendous and Dom Bouscher are fully capable of hurting you in 1-on-1 coverage,” Franke said.
Keenan has offers on the table from the University of Akron, Eastern Michigan and Youngstown State. He also has been in touch with the University of Cincinnati and West Virginia.
Keenan (6-foot-7, 285 pounds) is one of a handful of players with good size. Across the offensive line will be senior Josh Francher (6-3, 330 pounds), senior Landon Thomas, sophomore Seth Thomas, juniors Preston Rice, Max Silverthorn, Cayden Benton (6-7) and Ashton Ellis, and freshman Andy Silverthorn.
“We’re very happy with what we’ve seen out of that group. We’ve got some big boys,” Franke said.
Switching sides to the defensive line, Ellis will lead that core and will take over the duties left behind from the Division VII Eastern District Player of the Year, B.J. Pierson.
“B.J. had a miraculous season, but Ashton I feel like was overshadowed,” Franke said. “He had seven sacks and was close to 100 tackles last season. In any other year, people would be saying what a great season Ashton had. He’s been looking really good.”
Other options across the line are Landon Thomas, Keenan and Francher. The lone addition from last year is sophomore Jordan Stackhouse.
Franke will run a 4-2 defense, possibly a 3-3 if needed.
Inside linebackers are both Kinseys, Nett and junior T’Kai Jett. The outsiders will be Nolan Dickinson, Filby, Jett and Zane Kinsey. All players mentioned are battling for time at each spot.
The cornerback position also is a battle. The options are West, Bouscher and Baker, with junior Logan Sloane expected to see playing time.
Safeties will be led by senior Avery Wiegand.
“The safety for us is the quarterback on defense. He’s going off coverages and making sure everyone’s aligned properly. To be able to have him back will help tremendously,” Franke said.
Nolan Dickinson also will be a safety, while Mick is a possibility if absolutely needed.
Keenan will handle the punting duties once again. Ellis will kick off, and a field goal kicker is TBD.
“We may not be kicking field goals,” Franke said with a laugh. “We’ve gotten into conversations where we may just put Shane there, snap it to him and let him run for 3 yards.”
Andy Silverthorn, Nett or Russell Dickinson will be the long snapper.
“Even though we’re losing key guys, we’re also returning some key guys,” Franke said. “Shane Keenan, obviously, is a Division I athlete. We have a big offensive lineman in Josh Francher who will be starting his fourth year. Ashton Ellis is another lineman that has started the last two years. We have a core group of guys we build off of. Even our quarterback, Aiden Mick, he started against Wellsville as a sophomore. There are some kids that are coming from other school districts last year that must come in and learn everything fresh.”
The Red Knights open with Wellsville again as it normally does minus the COVID-impacted 2020 season. Lisbon and Pymatuning Valley are add-ons. Lakota was a late addition for Week 5, and Franke believes that is the second-toughest opponent.
“We have a split with five Division VII and five Division V schools. I did hear there will be an added strength component to the schedules, which will play in our favor,” he said. “We’re getting to the point in our program where we don’t have the luxury of scheduling only Division VII schools. There are several that will not play us. That’s fine because we would rather play some Division V schools to get better prepared in late playoff rounds.”