All hands on deck to replace Kelly, others at Sun Valley
ASTON >> The contributions of Julz Kelly the last two seasons were so vast that no one person can be expected to replace him. So it’s perhaps fitting that as the pendulum of graduation at Sun Valley swings, it leaves the Vanguards, fresh off a surplus of skill-position talent, with a newfound strength on the lines.
Kelly isn’t the only one gone from last year; also departing are top receivers Lance Stone and Dayon Belgrave and two-year starting quarterback Anthony Ellis, who threw for 2,800 career yards. That’s a lot of efflux for one offseason.
While the replacements, in one form or another, grow into those roles, they’ll be literally and figuratively protected by a large and experienced line.
“I think we’re working good as a unit,” tackle Sawyer Jenkins said. “We’re all working hard together this year. … I think we still have the same amount of skill behind us, so it should be good.”
Jenkins is one of the senior anchors up front, but most of the positions in the trenches will be filled by players who were part of last year’s three-win campaign. At the other bookend spot is the biggest of the bunch: 6-4, 319-pound Jake Crowder. Fellow junior Jake Steinmetz (6-3, 205) is the center, with Rob Powell at one of the guard spots with Cameron Madison competing for snaps on both sides of the ball.
As the other jobs sort themselves out, the big guys up front will be looked at as a constant. They’ve been platooning to the weight room three times a week all summer, building familiarity and strength. And with a rotation that coach Bubba Bernhardt figures is about seven-deep at this point in the preseason, they’ll have plenty of fresh bodies to rotate in on either side of the ball.
“They’ve been good with their blocks and stuff,” junior running back/receiver Tazuan Thomas said. “I think we’ve got a bigger line than we had last year. I think we’re going to have one of the bigger lines in the league.”
If you’re noticing a trend, it’s in the prominence of the junior class, a definitely strength on the Vanguards roster. The cohort includes Thomas, the second-leading rusher last year who’ll get a lot of time in the slot in a proto-Kelly, playmaker role; linebacker/halfback Tyler McLaughlin; defensive backs/receivers Sean Stone and Antonio Rivera; plus linemen like Madison,
Steinmetz, Powell, Crowder and Nick Siekierski. And those are just the ones to get significant time as sophomores, with several more vying to get into the rotation this year, plus a decent crop of sophomores.
In the face of what could be a transitional year, the prevalence of juniors relieves some of the immediate pressure. They can learn over a longer horizon, knowing it’s not a one-and-done equation, a little breathing room as they hone their crafts.
“I feel like as a team, you’ve got to have more patience,” Thomas said. “Especially with the younger guys because they look up to you and if you don’t have patience, then they start to get down and we don’t want this.”
“I think we have a lot of talent in our class and a lot of experience from last year,” McLaughlin said. “… I’m really happy for it. The more we can work together, the more we’re going to get stronger, better and know each other’s weaknesses and everything like that. I think we’re going to be fine.”
One of the few seniors in the lineup is the one under center: Johnny Eskridge, a converted linebacker. The 6-2, 190-pounder will operate the offense with different latitude than Ellis had. But more consistency on the line could make things simpler all around.
“The adjustment has been pretty smooth,” Thomas said. “We’ve just got to stay together as a team, work hard. But we’ve been doing good at building the chemistry with each other over the summer and we’re starting to learn each other more and come together as one team.”
Sun Valley 2019 Schedule
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tazuan Thomas >> Athlete
Thomas mostly played in the backfield last year, but he’s the kind of all-purpose threat that the Vanguards will look to get the ball to in various situations, either out in space from the slot or on handoffs. He’s following in the footsteps of Kelly and Lance Stone, and while he’s not trying to directly replace either, the junior has learned plenty from his elders. “I picked up a lot from the both of them, just how Julz attacked his holes and how Lance hit on defense and played good coverage,” he said. “I picked up a lot.”
Ty McLaughlin >> Linebacker
If the defensive line does what it’s projected to in plugging holes and occupying blockers, there will be ample opportunities for the linebackers to attack and make plays. McLaughlin will have an expanded role on offense, too, but the 6-foot, 180-pounder has the size and closing speed to excel on the defensive side. “I think it’s really going to help us because they’re going to have a good push,” he said of the defensive front. “They can make a little pile and me and the other linebackers can clean it up.”
By Matthew DeGeorge; firstname.lastname@example.org