The St. James football team had a spectacular season last year, going 7-2 in the regular season and cruising past Sullivan to open Districts before a heartbreaking 35-34 loss to Owensville ended their season. Typically a season like that isn't followed by many changes other than graduating seniors, but after Greg Harlan accepted a new role at the school as the Activities Director, the Tigers were suddenly in need of a new head football coach.
Enter Josh Rodriguez, who comes to St. James from Class 1's North Platte, isn't looking to make any radical changes, but is coming in with a fresh set of eyes on this team. After spending the summer with his new team and getting a chance to look back at their success last year, coach Rodriguez likes what he's seen so far.
"The guys we've got coming back played a significant role on last year's team, specifically up front. We've got three guys returning up front that got significant time and a couple of them garnered some All-Conference recognition, so we do have some experience up front," said coach Rodriguez. "And with our skill spots, a lot of those guys played in spots and they got some valuable playing experience even though they may not have been the go-to guys and they're going to be the weapons we're going to go to this year."
When you look at the offensive talent coming back, the biggest standout is Grant Conway. His electric speed that earned him three medals at the State Track and Field Championships made him a dangerous weapon last season. Conway led St. James in receiving with 852 yards on 40 catches, while adding a team-high 13 touchdowns.
"Grant is probably going to stand out to most people on film, because of his elite track speed and he does transfer that track speed to football speed pretty well," said coach Rodriguez. "I'm excited to see what that looks like on game night."
Outside of Conway, St. James has a lot of new faces. Tate Whitener will take over for Ryan Harlan at quarterback this season. Whitener saw varsity time last season, but not as a quarterback. As for the weapons around him, coach Rodriguez has had a number of players stand out so far this summer and the number one thing those kids have in common is blazing speed.
"Tate probably could've been the starter at quarterback last year if he didn't get injured in the preseason, but that's just the way things worked out. Towards the end of the year, he got some experience at some other positions and got some valuable time running the ball, which I think will pay off for him this year," said coach Rodriguez. "I'm looking at towards guys like Jaden Roark, a slot receiver who started a few games last year. He's pretty dynamic...and he's going to run the ball a little bit. He's kinda got a little shiftiness to him like a little scat back would.
"A couple of other guys that I'm looking at that will fill in some roles, a junior Nick Halbrook was a JV quarterback last year, he'll play the other slot receiver...I think Nick has the potential to have a break out year," continued the St. James head coach. "It looks like we've got a 4x100 team out there because Connor Gorrell is just as fast as the other three. That's another kid that I'm looking at as another outside receiver that's going to be able to stretch the field vertically."
All of that speed at receiver should help open the field for the running game, which will be led by Sage Gibson.
"We're going to be led by Sage Gibson, a senior. He got a little bit of time at running back last year, he was primarily a defender, but right now he looks to be our number one back alongside a sophomore, Gavin Caldwell," said coach Rodriguez. "He's a bigger kid, about 200 pounds, pretty well put together. He looks like a legitimate Class 3 running back and he's shown some skill with the ball, especially in the receiving game, that's going to make him a threat. As the year progresses, we'll probably see those guys sharing reps, which is good because they're both starters on defense."
One thing that will help these new starters is the fact that a lot of their offense will look the same as coach Harlan's system, so they weren't starting from scratch at the beginning of the offseason.
"There will be some different wrinkles that the kids are getting used to that are new to them, but as far as their base stuff, it's a lot of the same stuff," said Rodriguez. "A lot of inside and outside zone, quick passing game. A lot of that stuff is the same stuff. Maybe we changed the name, but it's not new concepts for the kids and I think that's going to pay off more than anything."
The experience on the offensive line will also be a key to helping the St. James offense get off to a good start. St. James has three returning starters in Logan Ives, Zach Davis and Broc Chitwood. Coach Rodriguez really likes what he's seeing out of his big guys up front and has his eyes on some players to replace Drake Ortiz at tackle and Cole Petty at center.
"Keegan Finch has looked good in the offseason stuff. He's another big bodied kid who looks like the other three coming back, so size-wise we won't miss anything there," said the St. James head coach. "At center I think we're going to have a nice little center, a junior Nolan Bell. He's had a nice summer and I think he's ready to step up and play varsity football."
The St. James defense will have a lot of familiar faces from the offense. Coach Rodriguez will look to rotate as much as possible, but he expects to lean on a lot of the same players on both sides of the ball.
"Just like any team, we would love to have 22 different starters, but that's just not practical for the situation we're in. We just don't have that many varsity ready kids just yet and that's a goal we're going to work towards," said Rodriguez. "A lot of those same guys are going to play a lot of defense. And a lot of those spots are redundancies and they'll be able to rotate in and out so they don't have to play both ways all of the time."
There will be a few different players on the defensive side of the ball that Rodriguez thinks can make an impact. After having several great pass-rushers graduate, the Tigers will need some players to step up and get after the quarterback.
"I think we're going to use different schemes to get our outside linebackers involved and our defensive ends," said coach Rodriguez about creating a pass rush. "A kid that's coming out for the first time in a while, Tyler Teague, has kind of shown up this summer as a defensive end that looks really good. He's put in a lot of work in the weight room and he looks like a legitimate rush end...I think he's going to be able to rush and be disruptive on the defensive line along with Ives and Davis in a rotation of some sort."
Behind that defensive front, St. James has a few players to replace in their linebacking corps. They'll have a big leader coming back in Gibson, along with Caldwell, and the Tiger head coach likes his prospects with some other players filling in around them.
"Tyler Deardeuff, a senior, looks like he has one of the spots laid out and Rustin Branum has had a solid summer and he looks to be ready, he's a junior. A wiry kid," said the St. James head coach. "He's a kid that we could probably move around to play outside linebacker, inside linebacker, move him back to free safety. He's just very athletic and I think he's going to be able to handle a variety of different spots to allow us to line up in different places.
"They've got some speed to go with it and that's just the running theme with our back seven guys is that we've got a lot of speed to run," continued Rodriguez. "Some of them may not be big in size, but they're going to be able to keep up with people and be able to beat people with speed."
The secondary is going to built with that core of offensive skill guys and that speed and athletic ability should become a dangerous group.
"That'll probably be the strength of our defense in the secondary," said coach Rodriguez. "The same guys that are our skill guys on offense will probably be our number one skill guys on defense until we can get some of those younger guys ready.
"Luckily we have I think six guys that are upperclassmen that we can sub in and out, so if somebody needs a break offensively or defensively, we're going to be able to sub without missing much on either side," continued the St. James head coach.
Whitener will have the chance to basically be the quarterback on both sides of the ball. Like Ryan Harlan before him, Whitener will start at safety on defense, which will give him a mirrored image of his offensive position. Coach Rodriguez thinks that will help him on both sides of the ball.
"Playing in the safety position on defense is putting Tate in a position to be a quarterback on defense too. Trying to get people in the right spots, changing our coverage and look depending on what the offense is going," said Rodriguez. "He's taking control of both sides of the ball pretty well."
With a lot of new players looking to step in to starting roles, coach Rodriguez thinks he has some players who will have a chance to surprise some people this year. His biggest dark horse right now is Halbrook.
"I think a kid that's probably going to stand out pretty quickly is Nick Halbrook," said the Tiger head coach. "I think he's going to become a player in the conference pretty quickly and people are going to recognize him. He's confident now, he's got speed and hands and I think he's going to be a go-getter."
The Tigers do have some changes on their schedule. St. James is cutting a pair of games that have been blow out wins from their schedule against Houston and replacing them with Salem and Perryville. Coach Rodriguez is excited about adding some great competition to his schedule.
"We did not add easy opponents to the schedule, that's for sure," said coach Rodriguez. "Competition is always great. You want to put the best opponents on your schedule, because it's only going to make you better down the line when you get ready for District play. Seeing two very quality opponents right off the bat, both of which run the option, is really going to test us and I'm excited to see what our kids have."
The Tigers will have a lot of familiar faces returning to their District, as they’re put in Class 3 District 5. The District will include Buffalo, Eldon, Logan-Rogersville, Osage, Owensville, Salem and Springfield Catholic.
It's hard to pin down expectations on the Tigers from the outside. St. James had a lot of success last season, but they lost some big named seniors and have a new head coach. Coach Rodriguez isn't too worried about the win total, but he thinks his team is going to have a chance to shine this year.
"You don't like to put numbers on it. I think this group is very capable of producing very nice things. I think they have a chance if they stay healthy and do the right stuff that they can compete at a conference title level and a District Title level," said Rodriguez. "But your goal day in and day out is to get better and develop the program regardless of who's here and who's not, you just want to get better every day and give yourself a chance to compete."