SHILLINGTON >> There’s no replacing Jan Johnson. Can’t be done.
If Governor Mifflin head coach Mick Vecchio knows anything after a quarter-century on the sidelines, it is this. And so you plug and move on.
Johnson – whose personal family history is intertwined with Vecchio’s in terms of fathers coaching sons – is now at Penn State as a freshman walk-on. For three seasons in Shillington, he ran Mifflin’s veer option attack with aplomb, patrolled linebacker with ferocity, and oh, if that wasn’t enough, was among the best at placekicking and punting in the BCIAA. He finished his high school career with more than 5,000 yards of total offense.
But that’s over now. Vecchio and his staff are charged with finding a way to keep the graduation-decimated Mustangs in the thick of it in Berks 1, coming off a fifth straight divisional title and an 11-2 mark a year ago in which the team outscored its opposition 504-194 while making a deep dive into the District 3-AAAA playoffs. The Mustangs, in fact, have not lost a Section 1 game since 2010.
It won’t be easy to keep that streak going.
“You don’t compensate for a person like Jan,” Vecchio said, following a mid-week practice leading up to Friday night’s season opener at home against Wilson. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player. I’ve coached here now for 25 years and you just don’t replace that. He just did too much for us. And along with him, we had a heckuva lot of good football players here last year, and they’re just about all gone as well.
“So right now, we’re just trying to get things going and see how it goes.”
The task of trying to fill Johnson’s shoes on offense falls to junior Austin Baker and senior Hunter Reeser. Three days before kickoff, Vecchio did not have a concrete plan for his quarterbacks, who possess a combined four career pass attempts. Reeser doubles up at safety.
“Austin’s bigger, stronger; but Hunter’s a little bit quicker and he’s a senior, so he knows the idea a bit better,” Vecchio said. “So that’s why I think we’ll probably start Hunter and bring Austin in for a change-up.”
For three years, Johnson’s rushing ability gave Mifflin’s option a steely, slice ‘n dice edge not often seen, but feature running back (“S-back” in Mifflin terminology) Wilson Fontanez played an even larger role toting the football. He’s gone as well, having capped his career outgaining Johnson by better than 400 yards last season (1,634 to 1,197). The duo also accounted for a staggering 47 touchdowns (Fontanez 27, Johnson 20) in 2014.
Into that sizable gulf steps Lucas Garner, who slots at lead fullback coming off a season in which he gained 81 yards in eight rushing attempts. Shavon Prince, a first-year senior transfer from Glen Mills, will feature when the Mustangs run out of the I-formation. Baker is actually the team’s leading returning rusher, having run for 134 yards on 22 carries last season.
Prince will also see time at slot receiver. Junior Aaron Grill figures to split wide in most sets. Both are also slated for secondary duty.
“We’re predominantly a running team and that’s been our thing for the last 12-15 years, and it’s served us well,” Vecchio said. “It’s worked out good for us. We’ll need to see 3-4 yards (per carry) out of our S-backs.”
Tucker Garner leads an offensive line that is suddenly young but one of the bright spots during camp, according to the head man.
“Right now, our strength is, I think our linemen are coming off the ball quite nice,” Vecchio said. “They’re moving well.”
Defensively, Garner moves down from linebacker in Mifflin’s base 4-4 to form a pass rushing edge with twin brother Tucker, as anchors of the unit from the DE spots.
Drew Snyder makes up for a lack of traditional size at inside linebacker (6-0, 185) with tremendous quickness while absorbing the defensive role previously held by Johnson.
“I think we’re going to be OK there,” Vecchio said. “Snyder’s a little guy, but he’s quick as hell. Our front guys are pretty strong, quick kids. Our defensive ends, Tucker and Lucas, are pretty much the defensive backbone of the team.”
The early slate does Mifflin no favors: the Mustangs open with L-L powerhouse Wilson (a 35-34 loss in 2014), then face Lancaster Catholic and a formidable Manheim Township squad before getting into the meat of the Berks schedule.
“We need to keep the ball away from people, cut the turnovers down,” Vecchio said. “We need to control the ball. In the past, we’ve shown the ability to take the ball from the 20 to goal line in 15 plays, take eight or nine minutes off the clock.
“I think we might be able to that again, even though we have all new people. We’ll see.”
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