By SETH STASKEY
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The next-man-up mentality is becoming quite the norm within the St. Clairsville football program.
That’s what happens with tradition.
And over the course of his more than two-decade tenure with the Red Devils, head coach Brett McLean has been able to further accentuate that tradition.
Though another talented class was lost to graduation, the Red Devils’ cupboard is far from bare as they get set for Friday’s opener against a solid Canton South outfit.
“This senior class, in a respect, has waited its turn to be the leaders on the team, so I know they’re chomping at the bit,” McLean said. “As much as we want their senior season to be special, we want all four seasons these kids are with us to be special.”
Suffice to say the way at which the Red Devils have experienced success over the course of the last several seasons, it would be tough to imagine the experiences have been anything other than special.
For instance, St. Clairsville advanced to its second consecutive Division IV, Region 15 championship game last season before bowing out with a 12-2 record. In the middle, St. C. claimed the OVAC 4A title and also the Buckeye 8 South crown.
“I was elated with the season we had (in 2021),” McLean said. “There were a lot of veteran players with high expectations on that team and they were able to achieve a lot of their goals.
“I am really proud of what those kids accomplished in all four years. It was truly a tough group to send off. You wish you could keep them for 20 years.”
Coach Brett McLean discusses the upcoming campaign
Who could blame McLean for wishing that when you consider he lost five All-Ohioans?
Included in that list is Avery Henry, who is now an Ohio State Buckeye. Others were two-time First-Team All-Ohio receiver Collin Oberdick, Drew Sefsick, Jacob Jordan and kicker Lucas Otto.
Other graduation losses include: Jaren Starks, Kade Kiser, Mason McCort, Austin Porter, Logan Shields, Carson Woodford, Taylor Lane, Clay Espen, Jacob Saffell, William Smith, Joey Balgo, Nate Nguyen and Jason Davenport.
“Those kids will all go on to do great things … some in football and others in whatever professional field they choose,” McLean said. “I am truly in debt to the commitment those kids showed us for the six years they were with us (dating back to junior high). That group will always hold a special place to us.”
Obviously, those graduates accounted for a lot of offensive and defensive production, but the leadership they provided is something that McLean wants to see from the returning upperclassmen. It’s actually been something the Red Devils have been stressing and working to develop since they began their off-season program in December.
“We have had a group that meets with our coaches to help us with chemistry and making sure the team is as balanced as possible,” McLean said. “How this team handles adversities, which can come in different ways, will be key for us. I am not necessarily talking about wins and losses either. There are so many unpredictable factors during a season that they’re simply inevitable.”
Some of those adversities have occurred in camp this summer. Thus far, McLean has liked how his team has handled those.
“There are little things that happen that a team has to handle,” McLean said. “How a team handles that stuff is a sign of how they’ll handle bigger obstacles down the road.”
On the field, the Red Devils lost a huge portion of their offensive production. For instance, St. C. passed for 2,191 yards last fall and only 330 are back. On the ground, the Red Devils accumulated 3,452 yards and just 522 are in camp. In the scoring column, the Devils return players who scored 14 of their 73 offensive touchdowns.
“There was a handful of kids that were Friday night players last season,” McLean said. “But, there is a group ready to make their first start. Competition has been a big part of our camp because we have so many jobs open. Regardless of age or stripes on the shoulder, the best (players) at practice will play in the game on Friday.”
McLean was quick to point out that though many of the ‘first-string’ players are gone, his team isn’t totally green on the offensive side.
“A lot of our offensive players will be kids who have played either in a back-up role or late-game situation,” McLean said. “So, it’s not like it’s brand new to them.”
St. Clairsville expects to hand the quarterback duties to senior Andrew Vera (6-0, 180). He was pressed into duty last season in playoff games against Meadowbrook and Bloom-Carroll when Sefsick sustained a knee injury.
In his limited time, Vera completed 21 of 41 passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns. He was picked off five times and ran for 215 yards and five touchdowns.
Though Vera had the experience, he was involved in a camp battle with junior Colt Westlake (6-1, 160), who was a starter at wide receiver last season. If he’s not at QB, he will be back on the perimeter.
“We’ve had a quarterback competition,” McLean said. “Andrew came into camp right where we expected with the moxy of a guy who wants the job. He executes the offense well. Colt has really been pushing for the job, too. I am confident both guys can run the show and it could shake out that both guys are on the field a lot.”
Sophomore Brady Schafer (6-0, 160) is also listed at quarterback.
The battle for the running back jobs has been one of the most intense camp battles.
“We’re hoping to find a similar one-two punch like we had last year,” McLean said. “The running backs are so engaged in our offense with carrying the ball and blocking that one guy doing it solely is difficult.”
The most experienced returnee is senior Jacob Walker (5-9, 195). He rushed for 238 yards on 38 carries and scored three touchdowns.
Pushing him are sophomore Dino Burk (5-9, 175), sophomore Gavin Schoolcraft (5-11, 175) and senior Alex Wood (5-8, 155).
Senior Jaiden Zebbs (6-2, 215) is expected to take on a bigger offensive role as the fullback. He’s being pushed by sophomore Max Fogle (6-2, 190).
Other running backs listed on the roster are senior Luke D. Porter (6-0, 200), Landon Zalace (5-10, 160), juniors Marcus Bush (5-7, 175), Civin Murray (5-9, 155), Kaleb Walz (5-8, 130), sophomores Julian Kingery (5-6, 140), Jakob Brannan (5-6, 140) and Daniel Kyer (5-7, 125).
Senior Drue Jozwiak (6-1, 210) will serve as the tight end. Schoolcraft could also get into the mix there, too.
Depth in the tight end room is supplied by seniors Kyle Biery (6-2, 210), George Harrison (5-10, 210), juniors Brennan Stout (6-0, 210), Ryan Newton (6-0, 185), Jordan Clemons (6-0, 200), sophomores Kyle Rankin (6-1, 165) and Brody Saunders (5-9, 140).
Whichever quarterback wins the job will have a talented and deep receiving corps to throw to.
“We’re really excited about the receiver group,” McLean said. “There is a whole mix of guys working there, so we’re looking for them to step up and be the home-run guy and the alpha of that group where they want the ball.”
Westlake caught 12 passes for 307 yards and scored twice last season. Sophomore Tyson Pastor (6-3, 170) emerged as the season went along and played his way into opportunities and scored a touchdown in a playoff win against Meadowbrook.
Senior Grant Swider (6-0, 160), junior Cole Thoburn (5-10, 150) and Walz are also going to see time.
Juniors Tearyn Dukes (5-9, 155), Harison Kazmirski (5-9, 145), Sebastian Lewis (5-10, 145) sophomores Gage Wolfe (5-6, 120), Drew Gasber (6-0, 170) and Vince Vavrinak (5-8, 135) are also in the mix.
While many would think losing the likes of Henry and Balgo up front would be a major cause for concern, McLean is excited about the linemen who return.
“We’ve been blessed with a quality group of offensive line coaches who have made being an offensive lineman extremely special and got some bigger kids excited about playing up front,” McLean said. “It’s really starting to show because that’s our biggest group in terms of numbers. Actually, it’s the biggest group (of linemen) we’ve ever had.”
Junior Jacob Thornton (5-11, 210) is leading the battle for the center position.
Classmate Perry Patrone (5-11, 220) who worked his way into the lineup last season is back at a guard spot.
Senior JaMarcus Webster (6-3, 285) is expected to take over one of the tackle spots. Seniors Logan Fry (6-3, 250) and classmate Marcus Rector (6-5, 220) are also pushing for time along with junior Griffin Fogle (6-3, 250).
Junior J.R. Adams (6-2, 220) is a returning starter on the defensive line, but McLean believes he’s making a serious push for two-way action. Junior Bradyn Galloway (6-3, 300) arrived in St. Clairsville this summer after spending his first two seasons at Indian Valley where he was a starter at tackle.
Sophomores Easton Conaway (5-10, 220), Wyatt Toothman (6-1, 220), Troy Neal (6-3, 215) and Ryan Ivey (5-8, 200) are also making a strong bid for action.
The balance of the offensive line candidates include juniors Sammy Phillips (5-9, 215), Chris Sommerville (6-1, 220), Toby Miller (6-0, 210), David Gordon (5-11, 220), Shaun Gettings (6-0, 250), sophomores Kambel Sall (5-10, 170), Micky Balgo (6-1, 200) and Liam Tomlin (5-7, 145).
“There is no doubt that the best thing about our numbers is the competition it’s created,” McLean said. “Kids can’t just shwo up and think they have a job won. There are sometimes five and six guys battling for a position and those (battles) are nip and tuck.”
While the St. Clairsville offense is breaking in some new pieces, the defensive unit is much more experienced.
“I am expecting our defense to be ahead of our offense,” McLean said. “We have a sprinkle of starters back at each level and we’ll need those guys hitting on all cylinders quickly and executing. Coach (Ben) Frye does a tremendous job preparing our defense and they’ve really been bringing the juice at practice.”
The defensive line features Adams at tackle where he was in on 71 tackles and posted five sacks a season ago. Zebbs, who was in on 52 tackles and five sacks, is the other tackle.
Jozwiak, who had 81 tackles, is back at end and Rector is expected to hold down the other end.
Rankin and Saunders are both pushing for end action, while Galloway, Neal, Tomlin and Ivey are in the mix at tackle.
Stout, who was in in 122 tackles last season, is a mainstay at linebacker. Fogle and Bush are also going to see significant action. The outside linebacker has been a battle between Porter, Kazmirski, Schoolcraft and Burk.
“We have some sophomores who are mature beyond their age,” McLean said. “Physically, there is no doubt they’re ready, but they’re still getting the mental part of it down.”
The secondary, according to McLean, is the “most interesting place” on the team.
Vera returns after starting every game a season ago at safety and Thoburn is back at a corner. Walz is expected to serve as the nickleback. Dukes is a guy the coaches are “excited about” and will see time, too. Westlake and Pastor are going to be key cogs in the secondary with Wolfe and Swider making a case for action.
“I am anxious to see us play against someone and get some game reps to see who will tackle and make a play,” McLean said. “It’s a really competitive atmosphere.”
Special teams should once again be a strength for the Red Devils despite the loss of All-Ohioans Otto and Sefsick at placekicker and punter, respectively.
St. Clairsville has four players who work as kicker and punter only.
Junior Jacob Meager (5-11, 180) appears set to take over the punting duties. Also getting a look there are Bush and Gasber.
“Last winter, we really challenged Jacob in punting the ball,” McLean said. “He’s done a great job.”
Meager has also battled to be the kicker along with senior Karl Kain (6-0, 175), who is out for football for the first time; junior MaKenna Booth (5-7, 165) and freshman Parker Galloway (5-10, 160).
“We’re excited about all four of those kids,” McLean said.
McLean credited special teams coach Mike “Chops” Jacob because his passion for that third of the game has helped to build the roster size with which the Devils operate.
“I think it’s about perception,” McLean said. “If you’re on a special teams unit, you’re considered a starter and you have to compete to keep that position. We’re blessed to have Coach Chops. He puts a lot of extra (effort) into it and that makes a difference.”
Included on the Red Devils’ roster is a large class — 29 to be exact — of freshmen.
In an ideal world, McLean would like to see those players have a separate schedule, so they’re playing on a consistent week-to-week basis.
However, the availability of freshmen teams simply isn’t there, especially locally.
“Finding freshmen games is a challenge, especially against schools our size,” McLean said. “We have a few games scheduled.”
McLean pointed out the Devils’ frosh are playing Canton South, Indian Valley and John Marshall. He also received a commitment from Cambridge for a freshman/sophomore game.
“It’s a juggling act to have JV and freshmen games,” McLean said.
The frosh class includes: Sam McLean (5-5, 115), Rowan Mellott (5-7, 145), Kaden Clifford (5-5, 110), Derrick Panepucci (5-10, 135), Niko Jacob (5-11, 145), Daelyn Harris (5-8, 130), Ollie Muhly (5-6, 130), Jace Carpenter (5-5, 115), Colten Florence (6-3, 170), Kolten Ferguson (6-0, 145), Guy Vcelka (5-6, 115), Therron Fillon (5-9, 145), Brody Bolyard (5-4, 105), Grady Gwalchmal (5-8, 160), Jacob Tomich (5-7, 140), Levi Shunk (5-7, 135), Jace Isaly (5-9, 185), Masin Samaniego (6-0, 185), Tom Wolfe (5-9, 210), Elijah Davis (6-2, 225), Asa Sabo (5-10, 200), Devon Holden (5-10, 205), Luke Donathan (6-1, 160), Alex Renner (6-3, 245), Jadyn Richards (5-10, 195), Cayden Hans (5-10, 300), Malachi Greathouse (5-11, 170) and Christian Patricola (5-4, 120).
On top of Friday’s opening against Canton South, the Red Devils are set to face a challenging schedule once again this season.
“Honestly, I am buckling down for some speed bumps,” McLean said. “The first week is going to be so crucial for us. We know the second week (at Wheeling Park) will be a blood-bath, rivalry-type game, and I am not sure if we limp down to Wheeling Island Stadium how that will go.”
The Red Devils added a home date with Fort Leboeuf, which is located in Waterford, Pa. It will make the almost three-hour drive to Belmont County in Week 9.
A home date with Columbus Independence is also on the Week 3 slate.
Add in the traditional foes such as Union Local, Bellaire, Martins Ferry and Linsly and McLean knows his team better be ready early and often.
“It’s a tremendously tough schedule,” McLean said. “The kids need to recognize it has to be capsulized and played one week at a time. We can’t get caught looking ahead and only focus on what’s ahead of us at that time. We can’t spend too much time patting ourselves on the back if we win a game because the next game gets tougher.”
Gone from the schedule are Carrollton, South Allegheny and Wheeling Central.
“We need to be prepared to play good football right away,” McLean said. “It’s going to be fun playing in these types of games every single weekend.”
One area where McLean considers especially lucky is the fact that he’s been able to maintain pretty good consistency on his coaching staff. Once again this season, there was no turnover on the coaching staff at the varsity level.
Donnie Giffin is once again the offensive coordinator and Ben Frye calls the defense. Also on the staff are Chris Balog, Kevin Sacco, Steve Hicks, Vern Ridgeway, Eric Gay, Anthony Skrabak, Jacob, Jeremy Schafer, Chris Fogle, John Kutcher, Michael “Zuke” Jacob, Tyler Tonkovich, Gary Hull and Chris Patrone.
“The nice thing is over the last five years, I’ve been able to have a coach for every position,” McLean said. “Before that, I was the running backs coach and defensive backs coach, so I couldn’t leave those groups. Now, I am able to go down and be more involved with the lineman and other groups, too.”