2014 Southern Football Preview: Ground and Pound
After graduating several standout starters and most of its skill players, including current Penn State freshman tight end Mike Gesicki, it would be easy to dismiss Southern as a competitive team in Class A South.
The Rams, however, have an experienced offensive line and a slew of first-year starters at the skill positions who are eager to prove they can step in and get the job done.
“It’s one of those transition years,” said head coach Chuck Donohue Sr. “We can’t replace the guys we lost but we have kids that will get their shot now. We’ll be a little different type of team in that we’ll have to run the ball to be successful.”
While the Rams won’t have an unstoppable playmaker like Gesicki, they are in the rare situation of having all five offensive linemen back as seniors. They will lean on that group to carry them through the brutal A South schedule.
Up front the Rams have Pat Ferraro at left tackle, Clay Robinson at left guard, Ben Castellazzo at center, Tim Davis at right guard and Nick Miele at right tackle. Last season all five were first-year starters, but this year enter as an experienced and cohesive unit that will fuel Southern’s power running game. The Rams also have juniors Doug VanDeVelde, Joe Dolphin, Mike Browning and Zack Weinidenhoff to add depth on the line.
“It’s great having the whole line coming back,” Robinson said. “You win and lose up front, so having us coming back the skill guys can work off us. We don’t have a weak link. We all know the calls and what to do.”
“We have all the experience from last year and the offseason being together and going over everything,” Ferraro said. “We’ve really come together since last year. We know how to execute, and we’re ready to go at it.”
The only other returning starter in the Rams’ pro-style shotgun offense is senior receiver Zac Halliday. He’ll be joined by 6-foot-2 senior Dom VanDeBrook, senior Rick Rolenc and senior Mike Butera. The running backs are junior Pat Walker, senior Ryan Winkler and senior Sean Gesser. Playing wingback will be junior Anthony Gagliardi and senior Silas Farina. Competing for the starting tight end spot have been sophomore Jesse Amir and senior Olfemi Palmer.
The quarterback will be senior Jon Bleichner with Gagliardi as his backup. The Rams also have a sophomore they’re high on in 6-foot-3 Jackson Dowhower.
“Our gameplan is that we want to run over kids with a downhill power running game,” Robinson said. “We want to wear teams out and pounce on them.”
“With our line that has to be our style,” Walker said. “It’s the best part of our team.”
Defensively the Rams will continue to run a 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Matt Abbato. While Southern’s offense struggled last season, its defense was once again stout in allowing just 14 points per game. Eight starters return from that unit, so the Rams have plenty to build off on that side of the ball. Ferraro, a returning starter, is the noseguard and Robinson, also a starter last year, is one defensive tackle along with Palmer. Walker and Winkler both return as starting inside linebackers, as does Davis at outside linebacker. Castellazzo steps in as the starter at the other outside linebacker position.
In the secondary, Butera is back as a starting cornerback and VanDeBrook will get the start on the opposite side of the field. The safeties are Halliday and senior Shawn McManus, both of whom are returning starters.
On special teams, junior Kyle McDonnell will be the kicker and junior Brandon Barnetti will be the punter.
With a powerful group of offensive linemen returning and its defense mostly intact, Southern can remain in the hunt in A South if it can remain consistent. The Rams’ skill players are unproven, so nothing is guaranteed, but a solid year out of the receiving corps and Bleichner at quarterback could give the Rams enough offense to be playing meaningful games in November.
“We’re going to have to hang our hat on the fact that we have our entire offensive line back and eight starters on defense,” Donohue said. “It’s not going to be pretty, and it’ll be a struggle every week in this division.”
“I kind of like being the underdog,” Robinson said. “Maybe a team will take us lightly, and we’ll show them what we can do.”
Head coach: Chuck Donohue Sr., 17th season (41st overall)
Career record: 231-156-4
Assistant coaches: Matt Abbato (def. coord.); Andrew Beckett (DL); Eric Fierro (QB); C.J. Tomelden (RB/DB); Dylan Larson (OL); Dennis Pidgeon (OL/DL); Chuck Donohue Jr. (OL); Joe Fleck, Dan Roy (freshman); Evan Osbourne (football operations); Joe Caucino (athletic trainer).
2013 record: 5-5 (3-4)
Big Shoes to Fill: Dom VanDeBrook, Sr., WR/DB
No one can replace the void left by Mike Gesicki, who is one of the most physically dominant players in Shore Conference history, but VanDeBrook will step into a starting role at both receiver and cornerback this year.
X-Factor: Skill players
The Rams have most of their defense back and all five of their starting offensive linemen. If the skill players can produce in their first year as starters, the Rams will be in contention all season.
Glue Guys: The offensive line
It’s rare a team returns its entire offensive line, and Southern’s five-some leads both by example and vocally. As they go, so will the Rams.
Impact Newcomer: Jon Bleichner, Sr., QB
Bleichner takes over the reins of Southern’s offense after the graduation of Logan Sheehan. If he can be a legit threat in the passing game it will balance out what will be a run-first offense.
Pivotal Game: Sept. 27 at Jackson Memorial
The Jaguars are the defending division champs and will attack with a similar offensive strategy. It should be an old-fashioned slugfest between the two rivals, and if the Rams can come out on top it would set them up to make a mid-season run.