Landscape different, but Johnson, Patriots still dangerous
LANSDOWNE >> Penn Wood coach Ato Troop said it a couple of different ways. Quarterback Desman Johnson Jr. said it a few more. But it was best summarized with three simple words from Troop.
“No more Kennedy.”
Yes, 2018 Daily Times Player of the Year Kennedy Poles is a big absence for the Penn Wood offense. But with a large portion of last year’s receiving corps following him to graduation, his isn’t the only role to fill.
Poles accounted for 60 catches, 1,335 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, setting the county record for career receiving at 3,102 yards. It was a big reason why Johnson set the Delco mark in single-season yards at 2,895 plus 33 touchdowns and is within striking distance of the career mark.
There seemed to be an innate connection between Poles and Johnson that when the latter extended plays with his scrambling ability, the former always found the right pocket of space.
“It’s a big deal, because I know I could have the confidence if a play was busted or anything, I could put it up toward him and he’s going to come down with it,” Johnson said. “I can find confidence in our receivers now, but it’s going to take some time.”
The role reversals are two-fold for the defending Del Val champs, off an 11-win season. Where last year’s wideout contingent was laden with veterans (Brian Parker Jr., Anauri Hankey, Edmund Dennis) and the backfield was unproven, the proposition is flipped for 2019. Troop and Johnson are developing a group of talented players out wide that features newcomers Malik Brooks, Moleek Jones, Mike Price, Jordan Jones and Ameen Stevens.
But the most proven skill-position player is running back Elijah Gleplay, who rushed for 964 yards as a junior.
With Gleplay and running back David Johnson Jr., the pass-heavy Penn Wood attack of yesteryear might be tempered.
“I know we’re still going to throw the ball regardless, because that’s what we do,” Johnson said. “But Elijah’s probably going to get way more carries than he did throughout his whole career. It may be more balanced than it was last year, but we’re still going to throw it a lot.”
The other change comes with Johnson’s relationship to his team. As a junior, he had the luxury of veterans like Poles and Dennis who mentored him off the field and made him look better on it with their knack for making plays. This season, Johnson is the veteran that has to nurse the bonds between up-and-coming receivers.
Over the summer, that’s meant plenty of time spent in small-group workouts and at his house bonding. Johnson has taken a look at his leadership traits. Where last year, he could get heated during games, often cooled down by elder statesmen, he knows this year he’s got to do his own moderating and keep his composure at all times. He has the model of how others helped him to follow.
“I know I can’t get mad with these young guys,” Johnson said. “I can’t snap on them and bring them down during the game. I’ve got to lift them up.”
“He already has a grasp of what he’s supposed to do, and kind of bringing some of the younger guys along and helping them understand what we want them to do,” Troop said. “I think his patience and being like a coach on the field has helped them a lot.”
Johnson attended summer quarterback camps at Boston College, Syracuse and Virginia Tech. He’s got the size at 6-2, 250 pounds and the arm strength, and he’s worked on sharpening his accuracy and mechanics.
The larger challenge is resisting the temptation to do too much. The Patriots’ collective talent bailed Johnson out on occasion last year when he extended plays, perhaps beyond the point of advisability. A year wiser, he’s focusing on protecting himself, whether it’s being willing to throw the ball away or being more precise in running his progressions and utilizing check-downs and escape valves.
“I knew I could run the ball, and I know people didn’t want to tackle me as much,” he said. “So there were times were I could’ve thrown it away or got out of bounds but I didn’t. So I need to look into that more to keep myself on the field.”
“Knowing him and his size, I don’t want him taking those kinds of hits, because that’s what I’m there for,” lineman Jacquez Mabin said, “and that’s what the rest of the line is there for. We’re there to protect him for a reason, and we can’t risk him getting injured at all.”
Mabin and Elijah Nelson will anchor the line. Christian Suber will be a pass-catching option at tight end to go with his defensive responsibilities, while David Johnson and Kevin Washington will lead the linebacking corps.
Penn Wood, winner of 10 straight Del Val games and the last two crowns outright, still carries the chip of being a winless team just five years ago. So Troop spared no challenge in constructing the start to its schedule: Springfield, at Pennsbury, at Northeast, at Upper Darby, before traveling to Massaponax in Virginia.
“We want to play a challenging schedule,” Troop said. “We think our kids enjoy that. We’re a 5A team, we enjoy playing 6A teams, we enjoy playing bigger teams, we enjoy the challenge.”
Penn Wood 2019 Schedule
OFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH
Elijah Gleplay, Running back >> Gleplay holds the key to offensive balance, to keep safeties and linebackers honest. He did it last year when the focus was on the passing game. it’ll be more imperative this season to take pressure of Johnson.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH
Christian Suber, lineman >> The Patriots don’t have a ton of size on the lines, but Suber (6-0, 210) can make up for that with his outside speed. The Patriots’ schedule will include three league foes plus Springfield with new QBs this season, and Suber’s harassment off the edge will be huge in establishing the defense.
By Matthew DeGeorge, email@example.com