The St. James Tigers start their season on the road as they face off against another team of Tigers in Salem. This will mark the first game for new St. James head coach Josh Rodriguez. The Tiger head coach has worked to make sure his team is getting into a solid rhythm as they kick off the season.
"(The week of practice) has been pretty typical practice schedule that we'd normally have, just try to make it as normal as possible," said coach Rodriguez. "The only difference is we don't have a lot of information on who their players are, what wrinkles they may have. Other than that, we're trying to make it as normal a week as possible and go from there."
St. James will have an interesting defensive challenge right out of the gate with Salem, who run an option offense. Salem finished 8-4 last season and return their top runner in Chandler Gray. The difference is that Gray shifts from running back to quarterback in the Tiger offense, which brings a great threat on the ground to the St. James defense.
"Any good defense is going to start with trying to stop the option anyways, regardless if they planned it or not, because it helps them with their fits. But knowing that they're going to be a very power-heavy and option-heavy team, we've had to dial in our focus in our assignments, making sure we're where we're supposed to be and trusting that our teammates are going to do their job so I can do mine and not try to do too much," said the St. James head coach. "You get into real trouble when you try to do other peoples' jobs and you end up getting burned when you don't have somebody to fill yours."
Coach Rodriguez knows that Gray will be a big focus for Salem offensively, but the Tigers have other strong options in the backfield. Sam Ball rushed for four touchdowns last season for Salem and is one of several options in their backfield.
"They have a pretty good backfield with their quarterback leading. He was their tailback last year that I believe will still be the focus of their offense. First and foremost, we have to try to contain him and force them to put the ball in places that don't have it in his hands," said Rodriguez. "Other than that, we're just going to play option responsibility football and take what they give us regardless of who's back there, because they could have a different crew from what they showed in the jamboree or what they showed last year. It's just kind of hard to see that week one, but what we do expect is to see their best runner to be at quarterback."
The challenge that comes from having a player that moves from running back to quarterback in the Salem offense, especially week one, is that it leaves St. James figuring out how Salem plans to use him. Rodriguez plans to have his team focus on filling in their roles and hope the results will follow.
"It's kind of an unknown exactly what they want to do with him until you see them on film. It's not like it's an established veteran quarterback, knowing exactly what they want to do with him, but we have a pretty good idea" said the Tiger head coach. "You don't have a runner like he is and put him at quarterback if you don't intend to run, because he is definitely a threat in the run game and I would definitely expect him to try to utilize that."
St. James will have some players filling some new roles on both sides of the ball on Friday night with Tate Whitener starting at quarterback for the first time at the varsity level and a slew of new running backs and receivers. Coach Rodriguez has liked how those players have responded to the call all offseason and in this week leading up to the first game of the year.
"I think our kids are doing an excellent job of executing what we want to execute and just getting better at the little things," said coach Rodriguez. "Especially at the receiver position. We have some guys that have worked their way in to finding specific roles. I really like our young kids that are coming along with it and some of our newcomers are going to help with things people haven't seen yet."
One of the biggest things people haven't seen yet is a late addition to the St. James offense in Tyler Recker. A great basketball player and State Qualifier in track and field, Recker made the late decision to commit to the football team as a senior. Coach Rodriguez thinks he'll be able to slide right in at running back and join Sage Gibson and Gavin Caldwell in the backfield to have a potentially breakout season.
"I think Tyler Recker coming out for the first time is going to make a difference on offense. He's still a little bit behind on where he needs to be, but he'll make a difference in the long run," said the Tiger head coach. "Tyler's not a kid that wants to be eased into anything. He wants to go full go and he's ready for just about anything you can throw at him and he's a very high motor competitor. What ever he can handle, we're going to throw his way and see what defenses can handle him."
Another new face that coach Rodriguez thinks will be able to shine right away is Tyler Teague. He's another player coming out for the first time this year that will help in a lot of ways on offense and defense.
"I think Tyler Teague is another guy coming out for the first time playing tight end and D end. He's going to help us in the run game blocking at the tight position and he's a real threat running verticals," said coach Rodriguez. "He's going to give people a little bit of a mismatch problem."
With some new pieces to help the running game, that can open the door for a speedy group of receivers to break free. With one of St. James' leading pass-catchers returning in Grant Conway, the Tigers also have a lot of speed from Jaden Roark, Nick Halbrook and Connor Gorrell. The mix of run and pass should stretch the Salem defense.
Coach Rodriguez is excited for St. James' first challenge of the season and he expects their attention to detail this offseason to pay off week one.
"The biggest thing we need to do is up our intensity, be more aggressive and be sure of where we're going in our assignments," said the St. James head coach. "I think those little things that we've been working on are going to take care of themselves if we can amp up the effort."