As a sophomore starting at quarterback last year, Zyheir Jones had the luxury of learning the position at a deliberate pace because his Lakewood team had a two-way leader in Amir Tyler to take the pressure off.

Not only will Jones and his teammates not have Tyler to turn to this year, but now a junior, it will be Jones himself who is expected to be the leader that his Piners teammates follow.

Lakewood returns a deep list of experienced starters to its 2016 team, one of the primary reasons coach L.J. Clark does not expect the loss of Tyler – now at Temple University – to be too debilitating. On top of that, the team has a quarterback that Clark is ready to turn loose, both as a playmaker and as a leader.

Lakewood junior Zyheir Jones returns at quarterback. (Photo by Melba Losiewicz/ASAP Photography)

“I’m the starting quarterback so this is basically my team,” Jones said. “I have to be the leader now and make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing. I knew it was coming with Amir Tyler leaving. I had to be ready to step up and lead the team.”

As a sophomore in 2015, Jones threw for 1,005 yards and completed a shade more than 50 percent of his passes (58-for-115). Clark has seen significant improvement in Jones’s ability to throw the ball and see the field, but the junior will still have to adjust to life without a dominant running back to draw in defenses.

“I think coach believes in me a little more and I definitely think I’m ready to throw the ball more,” Jones said. “We have two really good wing backs and two big receivers over six feet. It’s going to be hard to stop them.”

Instead of searching for a replacement for Tyler to impact opposing defenses, the Piners will be spreading the offense out this season and giving Jones lots of options on each play. On top of the confidence the coaching staff has in the quarterback, Lakewood’s balance and depth at receiver is a motivating factor for the change in look on offense.

“We have a lot of skills this year so we don’t necessarily need someone to shoulder the load,” Clark said. “The ball is going to be spread around a lot. Zyheir started as a sophomore last year, so we kind of kept the training wheels on him. This year, they’ll be off.”

Jones’s twin brother, Jyheir, will be one of the receivers, as will 6-foot-3, 225-pound Adi Palmer. Palmer fits more of a tight end profile on most teams, but he has the athleticism and hands to work out of Lakewood’s spread, which typically won’t employ a tight end. Honore Richardson, Drayton Bonaparte and Johnny Webb will also be key cogs in the passing game.

Although Jones will be airing the ball out more this season, the Piners will still look to keep defenses honest with the running game and as the season approaches, Clark is still figuring out which of his skill players – including the players slated for wide receiver spots – will emerge as the primary ball-carriers. Manchester transfers Kyrie Jenkins and Jasir Cooper are two front-runners, with Cooper best fitting the conventional tailback profile.

“We’re going to open it up a little this year,” Clark said. “Last year, we had Secretariat and we fed him the ball. This year, we want to get everybody the ball and I think it will help us because we don’t have one superstar, per se.”

Sophomore Tye Pierce and junior Jon Paul Rodriguez will anchor the offensive line, with Pierce returning at center and Rodriguez at left tackle. Rodriguez, according to Clark, is drawing interest from Patriot and Ivy League schools and is primed to a big year leading the group of Piners up front. Junior Josh Lezin, a standout two-way lineman a year ago, will spend more of his time on the defensive line this season, but will work in at fullback in some bigger packages.

While Tyler’s absence will be more noteworthy, Lakewood also has to replace imposing guard Elijah Gill – a responsibility that will fall on senior left guard Tamir Sutton. Tackle Javy Rangel and guard Isaiah Francis will make up the right side of the offensive line.

Lezin’s move to full-time defensive end is one of the main stories on the Lakewood defense heading into the season, although not the only one. Lezin had 11 sacks as a junior last year and will pair with Palmer as a fierce pass-rushing tandem against more pass-heavy opponents. Opposite end Dante Morris will also be part of the front and Clark expects to rotate the nose guard.

“If Josh is an overall 90 out of 100, then we felt like playing him on both sides of the ball was making him a 65 by the fourth quarter,” Clark said. “By playing him in small doses on offense, it’s going to get more out of his ability on the defensive side and it’s going to better help us finish games.”

Senior Adi Palmer will be a versatile two-way weapon for Lakewood. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Lakewood will employ a 3-5-3 defense this season thanks to a set of athletic linebackers and defensive backs. Senior Raekwon Butler, Bonaparte, Jenkins and Cooper make up the linebackers, while Palmer will play on the edge. The Jones brothers and junior Elijah Miller will play cornerback, while Richardson will be the primary safety. Zyheir Jones’s venture to the defensive side might be a slow acclimation given his responsibilities as quarterback, but Clark sees the experiment worthwhile given Jones’s talent.

Palmer is also a key cog in the defense because of his size and versatility. He can play on the line, rush off the edge, play a traditional linebacker position and cover. The package of skills has FBS schools inquiring, according to Clark.

“Wherever coach needs me to play, I can play,” Palmer said. “I’m comfortable everywhere. I can catch the ball on offense and I feel like my best position is linebacker. I have gotten a lot better at linebacker.”

Despite losing arguably the Shore’s best athlete in Tyler, Lakewood is looking to build on a 2015 season that began with five straight wins, but ended 6-4 following a first-round loss to Seneca in the South Jersey Group III playoffs.

“A lot of people say we’re not going to be as good without Amir Tyler, but we’ve got a lot more good players than we we’ve had,” Palmer said. “A lot of young guys are stepping up and our quarterback has gotten a lot better and he’s a leader now.”

“The message this year is ‘finish,’” Clark said. “The games we lost last year, it wasn’t because we got blown out from the start. It was because we failed to finish the game. Other teams made plays in key situations that we didn’t and by focusing on doing the little things and doing them for a whole game, I think that will show up in crunch time.”

 

Head Coach: L.J. Clark, sixth season

Career Record: 25-26

Assistant Coaches: Evan Baubles (Off. Coordinator/Asst. Head Coach/OL/DL), Noel Kavanaugh (Def. Coordinator/WR/DB), Lew Peccarelli (Special teams/RB/LB), Gary Salerno (OL/DL), Al Lamura (QB), Tim Brown, Kyle Watson, Mike Muth, Steve Plancey, Tim Redding

2015 Record: 6-4 (6-1 in B South)

Big Shoes to Fill: Tamir Sutton, OL

The Piners are taking a committee approach to filling the big shoes of Amir Tyler, but replacing Elijah Gill will fall on Sutton, a new starter. At 5-8, 240 pounds, he is hard to move and Clark has praised his own ability to move.  Returning starters Tye Pierce and Jon Paul Rodiriguez will also pick up some slack with Josh Lezin moving to defense full-time.

X-Factor: Zyheir Jones, QB

With Tyler gone, Jones will be the center of the offense. He showed an ability to thrown the ball last year and the playbook will be geared more toward keeping the ball in his hands and letting him make plays.

Glue Guy: Josh Lezin, DL/FB

Taking Lezin off the offensive line is a hit to the offense, but he will still work in at fullback when the Piners need to go big. The bottom line for the coaching staff when deciding how to employ Lezin was that his ability to disrupt on the defensive end is so great that they don’t want to take away from it by expending him too much on offense.

Impact Newcomer: Kyrie Jenkins, RB/LB

A transfer from Manchester, Jenkins will play both sides of the ball right away after earning his place by competing in camp. He profiles as a running back and a linebacker, but given Lakewood’s preponderance of skill talent, the coaches have sampled him in several roles.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 14 at Point Boro

Outside of a state tournament loss, last year's 14-13 home loss at Point Boro was probably the one Lakewood would like to have back considering it cost the Piners an outright B South division title and was the first of three straight losses to end the year.