WPIAL runner-up Jeannette hopes to rebuild up front
Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers get most of the attention — OK, all of the attention — during the summer months in seven-on-seven passing tournaments. And, like always, that trend will carry over into the season, especially in the WPIAL Class A Eastern Conference with several teams loaded with skill-position players.
But there could come times when those players cancel each other out, one big play matching another, and teams will need to depend on their linemen to make plays to win.
Exhibit A: Jeannette, the Class A runner-up the last two years.
“Sure, everyone has playmakers,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. “But it's all about how you match up. You can have all kinds of playmakers, but you still need to be able to block up front. When Terrelle (Pryor) played, we had a great line, and they allowed us to make some plays. Terrelle will be the first to tell you that.”
Only two starting linemen are back from a 12-2 team: seniors Jalen Jones and Jordon Sullivan, who will look to lead an inexperienced front.
“But we think we have some players capable of filling in,” Hall said.
Included in that conversation are several newcomers, including sophomore Zander Malik, who did not play last season but is someone who Hall said, “has been working his butt off,” along with Hunter Yates and Oakley Tyger, seniors who played soccer last year but are looking to make an impact in football.
Yates could be in line to replace dependable kicker Blaze Tran, who was always busy. Jeannette averaged 42.3 points, outscoring its opponents 592-123.
Inexperience never seems to bother the Jayhawks, but more than a few vacancies gave them ample work to do in camp.
“In 5A or Quad-A you might be able to lose 15 seniors and be able to recover,” Hall said. “But when you lose that many in single-A, it's a big blow.”
Still, Jeannette should continue to pack offensive punch despite some position changes. Senior Robert Kennedy will take the reins at quarterback with standout Gio Vonne Sanders gone, and Melik Gordon, a rising junior, will move from receiver to running back to replace another key graduation loss in Kareem Hall.
“ ‘Poogie' can run and throw back there. We're confident in him,” Roy Hall said of Kennedy. “He is similar to (Sanders). We might even throw the ball more.”
Senior 6-foot-3 receiver Tre Cunningham, a pitcher on the WPIAL-champion baseball team in the spring, will be a viable target, as will sure-handed junior Marcus Barnes (6-4), the son of former Steelers and San Diego Chargers receiver Johnnie Barnes.
The team has plenty of height at receiver; this could be one of the longest groups the Jayhawks have had in years.
Kennedy is the top returning pass-catcher (22 receptions, 429 yards), and he also ran for 480 yards and eight scores.
Sophomore Justin Cramer returns as one of the conference's top linebackers and also could see time at running back.
While linebackers were plentiful and productive last season, coach Hall believes the defensive secondary can be a strength now.
Kennedy, Barnes, Gordon and Cunningham shouldn't give up too many deep passes.
“A big key is that we have to stay healthy,” Roy Hall said. “If we can find some kids on the line, I like our chances. This group has really been working hard.”
Junior Anthony Johnson, a basketball standout who transferred from Allderdice, joined the team at the start of camp. His role could increase over time. He is 6-2, 215.
Jeannette has 721 all-time wins, six shy of New Castle's WPIAL-leading mark.