Pats on mission of running big, finishing strongAugust 17, 2017
By HENDRIX MAGLEY
Consistency. It’s something that coach Todd Wilkerson and the Heritage Hills football program have prided themselves on.
It’s no secret the Patriots, who finished 7-3 a season ago, have favored the ground game throughout their program’s history, and judging from summer workouts and their scrimmage last Friday against Washington the trend seems to be continuing. Seniors Adam Redmond and Malachi Yeager, who combine two distinct styles to form one two-pronged rushing attack, will help give the Patriots a wider variety of options on offense.
“We have Malachi who is a bigger kid and then we have Adam who is smaller but very fast with a lot of lateral quickness,” Wilkerson said. “I think we’ll have a lot of thunder and lightning there.”
Yeager is the “thunder” of the duo, as he rushed for 177 yards and three touchdowns last season while also adding 30 tackles and a forced fumble to his résumé.
With a very young defense, especially the linebacking core which graduated all four starters form a year ago, Yeager will also be asked to anchor that unit as well. Another offensive catalyst will help shape the linebacking core, as junior Cade Jones is also expected to help lighten the load for a lot of the younger guys.
“As a head coach, I don’t like having your starting quarterback have to play linebacker,” Wilkerson said. “But until we get a few of the younger guys up to speed, Cade can kind of help stabilize things on that end.”
Jones, who saw most of his defensive action as a safety last season where he finished with a team-leading three interceptions, took over the starting quarterback role when now-junior Kyndell Carter went down with an ankle injury last season. Wilkerson said Jones won this year’s starting quarterback role based on how he finished last season and the work he logged throughout the summer.
With Jones taking over at QB, Carter will flip to the defensive side of the ball and joins a secondary led by seniors Evan Eaton and Caleb Keller and sophomore Cole Sigler. Keller is also expected to be the team’s No. 1 wide receiver.
“Caleb already was able to get a touchdown and a pick-six in the scrimmage so we’re looking for him to hold down both sides of the ball,” Wilkerson said. “He’s done a nice job preparing this summer.”
In addition to senior Cody Hagedorn and junior Grahm Turner at the defensive ends, Wilkerson also expects the leadership on the defensive line, paced by senior Lukas Heeke and junior Spencer Buse, to help relieve some pressure from the linebacking core. Buse has been a starter since his freshman year and was an all-conference pick last season.
“Those guys are definitely two very strong kids that will give us a good presence up front,” Wilkerson said. “That will really help to take some of the heat off of the younger guys.”
When Wilkerson says “younger guys,” he really does mean younger guys. The Patriots feature just nine seniors, and Wilkerson has been impressed with how quickly the sophomore and junior classes have meshed and accepted their duties.
“When these grade levels start to come together to form a varsity team, some kids who were once the star of their grade level have to take a different role and accept that role,” Wilkerson said. “At this point I’m starting to see that happen. It’s just exciting to get the season started and see how these things play out.”
Another facet Wilkerson stressed importance of is special teams, led by Carson Leibering. The junior kicker was a perfect 31-for-31 on PATs and also nailed seven field goals. Jones is also expected to handle the team’s punting duties. Wilkerson has gathered plenty of proof about how special teams can be special, since he’s seen a game change as a result of a missed blocking assignment on a punt return or a botched kickoff.
“We’ve had a lot of great games against Jasper over the 20 or so years where a punt return may have won or lost the game for us,” Wilkerson said. “We’ve made sure to dedicate a lot of practice to it, most of our kids who start one way or another also start on special teams to solidify those positions. It’s an important piece in our game.”
There’s something else the Patriots know they have to take care of when they trek to Mount Vernon at 7 p.m. CDT for Friday’s season opener: Run the ball late in the game to protect the lead and finish strong. After losing the last two years in the first round of sectional after owning a lead in the second half in both games, it’s something that Wilkerson can’t easily shake.
“We’ve had an issue of not being able to seal the game with the run and also our defensive play not being able to hold the lead,” Wilkerson said. “That’s why it’s key for us to get the jitters out and rely on our discipline and execution in that first game of the season.”
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