Rare Difficult Season Doesn’t Sit Well in St.C.
By SETH STASKEY
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Not many motivational speeches have been needed around St. Clairsville’s football camp this summer.
That’s what happens when a team so accustomed to winning at a high rate experiences a ‘down’ season. Or the type of season that head coach Brett McLean said, “left a sour taste in all of our mouths.”
The Red Devils, who have qualified for the postseason 10 times in the last 12 seasons, limped to a 4-6 finish in 2016.
“That hasn’t sat well around here,” McLean, who is entering his 16th season, said. “It’s just not the kind of season we wanted or what we’re used to. We are now working, so we don’t repeat the negatives.”
Though last season is over, McLean won’t hesitate to bring it up if he needs to with the hopes of keeping his team focused and hungry.
“If we need to talk about it, we will, but I know these kids weren’t thrilled with last season and I think it’s really motivated us,” McLean said.
The Red Devils must replace an impressive class from graduation that included All-Ohio quarterback Zach Bigelow, OVAC All-Star lineman Trey Elerick and Ohio North-South All-Star Game selection DeVon Harris.
Others who collected their diplomas in May included Jacob Keen, Logan Williams, Malachi Mellema, Chris Kuhn, Landen Thompson, Joey Maroon, Shawn Heatherington, Gage Cuiksa, Dustin Tomich, Devin Helt, Nick Schramm and Zach Clark.
All told, those players combined for 1,480 passing yards, 830 rushing yards and 920 receiving yards and scored every offensive touchdown for the Red Devils.
St. Clairsville’s 2016 season was impacted by a myriad of injuries, which caused numerous young faces to step into greater roles than they might have been prepared for. Though it was tough when it was happening, that’s an area that could pay dividends for the Red Devils this fall.
“We suffered so many injuries and played so many younger kids that it created experience and allowed us to build some depth,” McLean said. “That’s created some huge competitions in camp. We’ve had very focused practices because the kids know they can’t become complacent because so many guys are capable of taking their jobs.”
One aspect about his team that McLean is especially excited about is the fact that it’s balanced by class. The senior class is the smallest with just eight.
“We’re still a young team, per se,” McLean said. “Not having a huge senior class doesn’t worry me. Some of our best teams have had smaller senior classes. The seniors have been leaders. It’s going to be a mixed group of guys on the field. We’ll have kids sprinkled in from every grade, which I think is better.”
Though he admitted it’s a cliche, McLean stressed that his team wants to be as balanced as possible on offense. But, the overall identity of the team has been a work-in-progress through camp as they’ve paid very close attention to personnel during their pre-season scrimmages against Magnolia and Minerva.
“Scrimmages are huge, in my opinion, and I don’t mean from a winning or losing standpoint,” McLean said. “We tried to answer questions during our scrimmages. We obviously realized we needed to stay as healthy as possible, so some our of guys only saw limited action. But, we tried to keep it as fair as possible as it pertains to the battles we’ve had in camp because we wanted the situations to be similar for each kid competing.”
McLean and company are fond of their skill players despite their relative lack of heavy game action a season ago because of the lack of dropoff from one option to the next.
“We have to be able to run the ball,” McLean said. “The chance of victory is much higher when you’re able to be a good running team. Many more things can go wrong when you’re throwing it down the field. We will throw the ball, but we want to be as balanced as possible.”
Expected to take over at quarterback is junior Dustin Carrothers (5-11, 155). He saw some time last season, but only threw nine passes.
“We’re excited about Dustin’s physical attributes and he can throw and run the ball,” McLean said. “The big thing is how he’ll handle (situations) when everything is on his shoulders. There’s always that phase to go through where a quarterback has to deal with that.”
He’s been pushed in camp by sophomore Brett Vike (5-10, 145) and junior Ethan Duggan (5-10, 160), who transferred to St. C. from Steubenville. The other quarterback on the roster is freshman Tyler Tonkovich (5-6, 160).
“We’ve been evaluating all three kids closely,” McLean said. “Carrothers is the leader for the job, but all three are capable. The two that aren’t playing quarterback will help us somewhere on the field in some capacity.”
With McLean committed to running the ball well, a stable of backfield options are set to share carries. It could actually be a backfield by committee for the Devils, whose leading rusher accumulated just 391 yards last fall.
“We have a bunch of running backs who can rotate in and out,” McLean said. “We feel comfortable with probably like eight or 10 different guys. We’ll try our best to keep legs fresh. We’ll be evaluating through the games who has gas left in the tank, different situations might call for different guys. It’s a good thing.”
Junior Brady Kolb (5-11, 225), who was an All-Ohio selection as a linebacker, will be one of the chief options for the Red Devils’ ground game. Senior Matt Butkus (5-9, 210) will also see a lot of action as he returns from missing the bulk of 2016 with an injury. Junior Brandon Biery (5-7, 240) can also spell either guy at the fullback spot.
St. Clairsville’s game-breaker ability will come from junior Justin Heatherington (6-1, 155). The track and field All-Ohioan will actually be utilized in a bevy of roles. He could be at wide receiver, too.
Junior Kyle Storer (6-0, 185) is another who will be on the field in a variety of spots as either a running back or wide receiver. Junior Luke Watt (5-7, 155) will certainly be in the mix, too.
Other running backs seeking playing time are junior J.T. Porter (5-11, 160), Braedyn Mihalic (5-8, 145), sophomores Noah Trubiano (5-8, 160), Aaron Jordan (5-8, 155), Kenya Robinson (5-5, 150), Corey Naylor (5-6, 150) freshmen Josh DeNoble (5-0, 100), Austin DaRe’ (5-10, 120), Reese Skaggs (5-10, 165), Mark Benda (5-8, 115) and Jaiden Springer (5-5, 150).
The wide receiver spot will be led by junior Craig Bober (6-4, 185). He was ticketed for duty last season, but suffered a knee injury during a scrimmage and missed the entire season.
Sophomore Tyler Brookover (5-11, 165) saw time as a freshman and is expected to take on a bigger role this season. Vike and Duggan could also be utilized on the flanks.
Other wide receivers on the roster include: junior Greg Norman (6-3, 145), Evan Porter (5-11, 160), Craig Hepburn (5-8, 135), David Mellema (5-9, 135), sophomores Blake Gretchen (5-8, 125), Joe Burdyn (5-9, 135), Izaac Jozwiak (5-8, 145), Nate Fusco (5-6, 135), freshmen Will Balgo (5-10, 175) and Mason Schafer (5-9, 135).
“We have the depth and personnel to show some four and five wide,” McLean said. “Guys like Heatherington and Storer will be kind of like hybrid type guys who can play both back and receiver.”
Senior Matt Greenwood (6-2, 200) is a returning starter at tight end. Junior Andrew Elerick (5-9, 185) is also expected to see time in that spot.
Additional tight end depth is supplied by sophomores Derek Witsberger (5-10, 190), Quintin Elerick (5-6, 130) and freshman Luke Jozwiak (6-0, 180).
The most experienced area on the Red Devils’ roster is in the trenches. St. Clairsville returns four starters up front, which is something that has McLean very excited.
“Our senior leaders and captains are up front,” McLean said. “We have probably eight guys who can rotate in and out. We had an injury early last season and it created some competition to replace him and for the spot of the guy who did replace him. We moved some guys around and it’s created some good depth for this year.”
Anchoring the line will be senior center Luke Sorge (5-11, 230). On the left side, senior Tanner Younkins (6-1, 235) will serve as the guard, while classmate John Hawley (6-1, 235) will line up at tackle.
Sophomore Javon Lyons (6-2, 280), who is already drawing collegiate interest, is back at the right tackle spot.
The battle for the right guard spot has been ongoing throughout camp. Junior Trey Delguzzo (6-3, 260) logged the most action last season at that spot. However, he’s been pushed in camp senior Geno Drake (5-9, 200), junior Colton Skukan (5-10, 200) and sophomore Isaak Myers (6-0, 190).
Junior Luke Ewing (5-10, 160), senior Shawn Tomlin (5-9, 200), junior Justice McCamick (5-11, 225) and sophomore Chase Espen (5-11, 230) are all viable options for the Red Devils along the line.
Additional line depth is supplied by senior Hunter Cook (6-0, 200), sophomores Brock Butler (5-10, 190), Jeremiah Burdyn (5-4, 150), Anthony Ochoa (5-5, 200), Mason Thornton (5-5, 135), Austin Angus (6-1, 230) , Colton Grimm (5-6, 190) and Will Carman (5-11, 270).
Along with his myriad of other duties that he’ll perform this season, Greenwood will once again serve as the St. Clairsville kicker. Plus, he’ll handle the punting duties.
As just the place kicker last season, Greenwood connected on 19 PATs and two field goals en route to being listed on the all-district team. He won the punting job after spending much of the summer going to different punting and kicking camps.
“We have a lot of confidence in Matt,” McLean said. “He’s made kicks into the 40-yard range and he’ll handle all of our kicking. We can count on him in all fazes of special teams. He’s worked hard on his punting, but we obviously hope we don’t have to use him much that way.”
On the defensive side, the Red Devils will once again employ their base 4-4 alignment.
Kolb will lead the way on the defensive side. He was the team’s leading tackler with 98 solo stops a season ago. He’ll man one of the inside linebacker spots.
“Brady has had a tremendous offseason and we’re looking for big things from him,” McLean said. “He got here in June last year, so he has a better understanding of everything we’re trying to do and he’s not learning an entirely new system. He’s the leader of our defense.”
McCamick, Biery, Tribiano and Witsberger supply depth at the inside linebacker spot.
On the outside, Storer is a returning starter and was St. C.’s leading tackler. Watt and Porter are battling for the opposite outside linebacker post.
Up front, McLean hates the word platoon, but he might be able to do just that because of the depth of trenchmen.
“We’re going to put the best 11 guys on the field,” McLean said. “However, the ability to not have guys go both ways is certainly a benefit, especially early in the season when it’s hot.”
Greenwood is written in one for the defensive end spots. The other spot will come down to Butkus, Elerick, Hawley, Cook and Myers.
At defensive tackle, Drake, Skukan, Lyons, Delguzzo, Espen and Sorge are all basically interchangeable pieces.
“It’s very similar to the offensive line,” McLean said. “Who’s playing could be changing each week. Could come down to who practices the best, matchups and that kind of thing.”
In the secondary, Heatherington returns as the free safety and Brookover is back at a corner. The other corner has been a battle between Duggan, Vike, Carrothers and Fusco.
“We’re going to use four or five defensive backs, depending on the scheme we’re facing,” McLean said. “We want to keep fresh bodies in the game.”
Long-time assistant coach Mike “Chops” Jacob, who had been with McLean since he accepted the post, retired from coaching. He was charged with spearheading the Devils’ special teams, which is a duty McLean has taken on for this season.
The remainder of the coaching staff is the same. Donnie Giffin and Ben Frye return as the offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively. Kevin Sacco, Ryan Clifford and Vern Ridgeway are also varsity assistant coaches.
Matt Butkus, Hunter Cook, Geno Drake, John Hawley, Matt Greenwood, Luke Sorge, Shane Tomlin, Tanner Younkins.
Craig Bober, Jeremiah Burdyn, Dustin Carrothers, Jon Cunningham, Trey Delguzzo, Ethan Duggan, Andrew Elerick, Luke Ewing, Justin Heatherington, Caige Hepburn, Brady Kolb, Justice McCamick, David Mellema, Braedyn Mihalic, Greg Norman, Evan Porter, J.T. Porter, Cole Skukan, Kyle Storer, Luke Watt.
Austin Angus, Tyler Brookover, Jeremiah Burdyn, Joe Burdyn, Brock Butler, Trey Delguzzo, Quinton Elerick, Chase Espen, Nate Fusco, Blake Gretchen, Colton Grimm, Craig Hepburn, Aaron Jordan, Izaac Jozwiak, Javon Lyons, Isaak Myers, Corey Naylor, Anthony Ochoa, Kenya Robinson, Mason Thornton, Noah Trubiano, Brett Vike, Derek Witzberger.
Will Balgo, Mark Benda, Jake Bolyard, Austin DaRe’, Josh DeNoble, Luke Jozwiak, Robby Kain, Anthony Mays, Jalen McCall, Mason Morgan, Mason Schafer, Reese Skaggs, Jaiden Springer, Tyler Tonkovich, Caleb Wycoff.
Aug. 25: at Carrollton 7 p.m.
Sept. 2: at Meigs 7 p.m.
Sept. 8: Meadowbrook 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 15: at Martins Ferry 7 p.m.
Sept. 22: Indian Creek 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 29: Harrison Central 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 7: at Bellaire 12:30 p.m.
Oct. 13: Union Local 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 20: South Range 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 27: at E. Liverpool 7:30 p.m.
Win 6, Lose 4