Jays look for players to fill holes left by graduation (with PODCAST)

Jays quarterback Gabe Marcantonio warms up prior to a practice session earlier this month at Adkins Stadium.

Jays quarterback Gabe Marcantonio warms up prior to a practice session earlier this month at Adkins Stadium. Photo by News Tribune.

Audio clip

Jefferson City Season Preview

Jefferson City football fans may want to keep a roster handy the first few weeks of the season.

That’s because the Jays are breaking in a new quarterback, new receivers, a new secondary, a new defensive line, a new offensive line and other assorted parts. The list goes on and on for a Jefferson City squad hungry to return to state prominence after a 7-4 season in 2012.

“It’s been fun. I use that word, it’s scary-fun,” Jefferson City head coach Ted LePage said. “We see a lot of competition going on at a lot of positions. There’s a lot of spots open. There’s a lot of positions that haven’t been settled yet. We didn’t even put out a depth chart this year because we felt like we have great depth on both sides of the football.”

The Jays return four starters on offense and five on defense after eight players from last year’s squad signed to play in college.

LePage admitted having so many new players can make it tough to get a read on the Jays as they prepare for their season opener at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in St. Louis against McCluer North.

“We’re young and we’re pretty small, so we’re going to have to be aggressive to win games,” senior quarterback Gabe Marcantonio said.

LePage said he’s liked that aggressive attitude from his team so far, even saying his team “won’t win any beauty pageants.” But he also said they aren’t going to leave anything on the field.

“We’ve got some guys that care,” LePage said. “I mean that wholeheartedly. I enjoy coming to work. I know our coaches do because we’ve got guys out there who want to be better. Are we the prettiest team in America? No. We’ve got some kids who wear hard hats and bring their lunch pails and that’s a compliment. I mean that as a compliment.”

LePage added: “I would like to think this team has the makings of a team that could surprise people. We’re not anything right now. We’re going to have to wait until we see some competition to see where we’re really at.”

III

WHETHER OR NOT the Jays become the team LePage wants them to be may hinge on how the quarterback position shakes out.

The Jays have to replace three-year starting quarterback Thomas LePage, who accounted for more than 2,200 yards of total offense last season. That task falls on the shoulders of Marcantonio, who has served the last two years as the backup quarterback, as well as starting safety, punter and kicker.

Marcantonio has limited varsity experience at quarterback, with just four pass attempts in two years.

LePage said junior Isaac Roling could also see playing time at quarterback.

“Gabe’s strong point is his knowledge of the game,” LePage said. “Being a defensive player last year, I think he realizes the weaknesses of the defense. The other thing I think he tries to do is he doesn’t try to do too much. He’s just doing his job.”

A healthy backfield this season could go a long way in helping Marcantonio do his job.

Returning to lead the backfield is junior Elijah Pittman. He burst onto the scene in last year’s season opener against McCluer North with 114 yards on eight carries. He finished the year with four touchdowns, but injuries slowed him down in the second half of the season.

That left the Jays to mix and match at running back, forcing them to use more wide receiver sweeps. With a healthy Pittman, the power game becomes much more of an option for Jefferson City this year.

“Last year we had to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, especially after Elijah went down,” LePage said. “We didn’t have the power back. We feel like we have three guys who can do that now.”

LePage said he also is looking at junior Jerry McMillian and sophomore Denzel Wilson.

“(McMillan) runs so low to the ground that his legs never stop,” LePage said.

LePage said John Dement, who is the team’s leading returning rusher with 525 yards last year, has moved to linebacker.

The chance to be more of a power running team this year is particularly good news for the men up front. Two-year starter and senior Brayden Byrd (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) is back to anchor the Jays’ offensive line at the left tackle spot. After that it’s four new starters, and there are as many as 10 players in the mix for time up front.

“We’re going to line up and play some power football,” LePage said. “We get two big backs in there who will blow you up a little bit. When the offensive line knows they can come off with just one direct blow, that gets them excited. That’s what an offensive lineman really wants to do anyway.”

Taking over at center is junior Tanner Jenkins (6-2, 230). Jenkins sat out last year with a back injury and this is his first time playing center. LePage said he was pleased with what he saw in Jenkins when the Jays went to a team camp this summer in Bentonville, Ark.

Junior Brendan Baker (5-11, 185) moves in at left guard, sophomore Andy Murphy (6-3, 240) will play right guard and junior Maurkell Burnley will start at right tackle.

Burnley is the biggest member of the line at 6-4, 330 pounds.

“When Maurkell is on, he’s as good of a lineman as we have,” LePage said. “When Maurkell isn’t, he’s got some work to. He just needs to play a little bit more consistent. If he plays consistent, he’s going to be a very good player.”

LePage said despite all the new faces, the team’s depth on the line is greater than it’s been in the last several years.

“The five guys behind them are a very viable type of guys,” LePage said. “We haven’t had that. We usually have six guys. Right now we feel like we have 10.”

III

THE TOUR OF new faces for Jefferson City continues at receiver, where the Jays must replace their top three pass-catchers, who accounted for 61 catches and 12 touchdowns last season.

“This year having one senior as a starter, and last year having three seniors starting, it’s a lot of change,” junior receiver Jake Pridgin said.

Senior Rayshawn Williams is Jefferson City’s leading returning receiver. He had 12 catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns a year ago.

Junior Ripken Dodson and Pridgin saw significant time last season on the field as well. LePage added sophomore Dan Ellinger could step in and see time at tight end. During Friday’s Red and Black Scrimmage, Pridgin had three touchdown receptions and Ellinger added another.

“What we want to do is get our athletes out in space,” LePage said.

JEFFERSON CITY’S DEFENSE had two glaring weaknesses last season: It was susceptible to big plays and it didn’t create enough turnovers.

So it’s no secret those are two of the areas the Jays are looking to fix this season.

“We’re counting turnovers during practice, as far as interceptions,” LePage said. “You’ll hear me out on the practice field. There’s a couple days I’ve challenged and said, ‘Hey, if you can get this many interceptions, coaches have to do up-downs. If you don’t get this many interceptions, players have to do up-downs.’”

The Jays came up with just six interceptions last year and forced 16 total turnovers. They also allowed 12 touchdowns of at least 30 yards. Despite the lack of turnovers and big plays, the Jays still allowed slightly more than 14 points per game.

“One thing, and our defensive coaches have done a wonderful job with this, is attack the ball,” LePage said. “Last year we did a good job of covering people, a lot of times we didn’t attack the ball. We’ve made it a point in practice. We do two periods where we basically are going challenging the defensive backs to go get the ball at the highest point.”

The heart of Jefferson City’s defense is found where it usually resides: the middle. That’s where senior Hayden Strobel sits to anchor the unit after leading the team with more than 90 tackles last season.

“Where we really noticed a big change in Hayden was his attitude,” LePage said. “He became an emotional leader, a vocal leader. He really carries a lot of weight with our players.”

Joining Strobel on the inside is junior Austin Gerloff. The outside will include junior Travis Burris battling for time with Dement.

The Jays brought plenty of pressure last season, picking up 24 sacks. Senior Jordan Robinson, the only returner up front, was a big part of that coming off the end with 3.5 sacks. He will be relied on heavily to do the same or more this season as a hybrid end/strongside linebacker.

“We want to try and get four guys to get pressure on the ball,” LePage said. “We’d love to see pressure with four. Jordan Robinson gives us that opportunity. Jordan is a very, very explosive-type player. He’s got great size, and he’s fast. A lot of times he comes out of his stance and gets past the offensive tackle.”

Coming off the other end will be junior Isaac Templeton.

Junior Ra’jae Scott will spend time at noseguard, with junior Paul Harris at tackle. Also competing for time at noseguard is senior Hakeen Chism.

“Really, the only guys we have who can’t flat run like a receiver are our noseguards,” LePage said. “Those other three guys can really run and that’s what we’re trying to do is create a lot of lanes with those guys trying to get through them and get to the quarterback as fast as possible.”

Getting more pressure on the quarterback should help Jefferson City’s secondary.

Senior Austin Chiagorom moves from corner to free safety, where Marcantonio played last season. Chiagorom had an interception and 25 tackles last year.

“Austin gives us great speed at that position, physicalness and the ability to track down the ball,” LePage said. “We’re going to go let him try and get the ball. That’s one thing we feel like he did well from a corner position, but we’re going to put him in the middle of the field.”

Joining Chiagorom in the secondary is junior cornerback Darryl Williams. Williams, who LePage said may be the best athlete on the team, played last season as a sophomore before breaking his collarbone. Joining Williams at the other corner spot is senior Isaiah McBride.

Others battling for spots in the secondary include juniors Zach Bond and Austin Holland.

III

THE TOUR OF new faces takes a break when it comes to special teams, as there are multiple players back.

Sophomore J.T. Bohlken, who converted 32-of-35 extra points last year, returns and will kick field goals this year instead of Marcantonio.

“Anything from about 42 (yards) in he’s pretty much really a consistent kicker,” LePage said of Bohlken. “He went to some camps this year, he put on some size and strength. There’s no doubt last year his accuracy. This year we’ve seen with the increased leg strength.”

Marcantonio is back for another year of punting after averaging nearly 39 yards per attempt a season ago.

The return game could feature a variety of players including Pridgin, Darryl Williams, Bond, Rayshawn Williams, Chiagorom and Wilson.

“At this point in the season, every day we’re spending 20-plus minutes on special teams,” LePage said. “We feel like that’s something where especially with the season being shortened practice-wise, you can win some games early on special teams. We’re going to try and strive for that.”

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Please review our Policies and Procedures before registering or commenting

News Tribune - comments