Football – With Great Pride: 2015 Jackson Liberty Football Preview
Having a handful of starters returning from a 5-5 team may not seem like the recipe for improvement, but Jackson Liberty enters the 2015 season with the expectations of making a big jump after five consecutive seasons hovering around .500.
There are many reasons: a big and experienced offensive line, a two-year starter at quarterback, an exciting new starter at running back and some younger players with great upside. The Lions are hoping it all adds up to a playoff berth and being in the thick of the Class B South race.
“I don’t know what it is, but it just feels different around here than in years past,” said senior two-way lineman Jared Dizenzo, a three-year starter. “People are hungry. The sophomores coming up really want to play, and it’s making us raise our level in practice. We definitely made strides last year but at the same time we were disappointed because we thought we were better than a 5-5 team.”
The Lions will be running a new offense under coordinator Vin Spadavecchia, who was previously an assistant at Brick. Liberty’s multiple pro gun set is the offense Brick ran the last two seasons and Toms River North ran when Chip LaBarca Jr. was the head coach. Returning at quarterback for his second year as the starter is senior Ryan Van Wickle, who threw for 981 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Van Wickle was never 100 percent healthy last season, but comes into his senior year without anything holding him back.
“Through no fault of his own he had a serious problem with stiffness in his back and legs, and he was just never loose,” said Jackson Liberty head coach Jim Sharples. “He was working with a specialist and nothing really worked, but he toughed it through. He would wince every time he moved. He’s a different kid this year. He’s running the ball a lot more smooth, and he just looks better. Maybe he just needed the offseason, but he is much better coming into this year.”
“Last year I was never fully healthy and this year I am, so confidence I think is at an all-time high for me,” Van Wickle said.
In front of Van Wickle will be an offensive line that has both size and experience. Dizenzo (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) anchors the line at center, where he has started since his sophomore year. Fellow senior Jerold Goodman (5-foot-11, 225 pounds) returns as the starter at left guard. The newcomers are 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior Javier Duran at right tackle, junior Xavier Roman at right guard and promising sophomore Nick Johnson (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) at left tackle.
“Having a good O-line is the key to any good offense,” Van Wickle said. “You can have the best skill players in the world but without a good line they’re not going to be able to go anywhere. Having that base is definitely the rock to our offense.”
“As a former lineman I know how important the position is,” Sharples said. “We have a great anchor in Jared Dizenzo. He’s a leader. And we have some other guys coming up. We finally have some size, too. The young guys may be raw but they’re big and athletic.”
“The line is everything in high school and really at all levels,” said senior running back Ken Pommerencke. “If you don’t have a good line you don’t have a good team. I feel confident with them, especially Dizenzo. I feel great running behind them.”
Pommerencke started at safety last season and will also play offense this year as the team’s starting tailback. Sharples has been more than pleased with his work so far, so much so that the coaches have wondered what took them so long to insert him in the backfield.
“We wish last year he would have come up to us and said he could run the ball, because you watch him and he has the things that natural running backs have,” Sharples said. “He has great vision, he runs with a purpose, he finishes, he knows how to switch hands. You ask him the last time he touched the ball and it’s in eighth grade. That’s on us. We should have found out sooner, but hopefully he can give us something and be another pleasant surprise.”
The fullback will be junior Jake Stevens or junior Steve Schuster. The tight end is senior Braden Yorke, who started at receiver last year. Starting at slot receiver is junior Ryan Downer with seniors Emmanuel Flores, Jared Pommerencke and Joe Low as the other wideouts. Low is a member of Jackson Liberty’s hockey team who decided to come out for the team.
“The offensive line is definitely a strength with five big kids, and Ryan Downer has good speed and lots of potential,” Van Wickle said. “I think we’re going to be able to put up some points this year.”
On the defensive side of the ball the top priority has been tightening up a run defense that was torched on a few occasions last season. The lack of run defense was a major reason the Lions allowed an average of 25 points per game.
The good news is that some of the experienced players on the offensive line will also be a part of the front in the Lions’ 3-3 stack. Junior Jacob Stillwell is the nose guard with Dizenzo as a returning starter at defensive end and 6-foot-3 senior Bobby Miller, who saw some time last season, as the other defensive end. Duran is also in the mix to get reps along the defensive line.
Goodman started at defensive end last season and will move to middle linebacker. The two inside linebackers are Schuster, a returning starter, and junior Justin Mayes. The outside linebackers are Van Wickle, a three-year starter, and Yorke, who saw some time at the position last season. Low and junior Derek Catron can also play outside linebacker.
“Stopping the run is job No. 1 for me,” Sharples said. “For me, I’ve been away from coordinating since I got the head job and now moving back to it I started looking at things in December and January and realized teams were really beating us up inside the tackle box. We have to put a stop to that.
“Fortunately we have athletes on the outside that can take a little bit of the burden off our coverage underneath so we can pack the box. We have to change our alignment a bit to get thicker inside, and if we do that with some adjustments hopefully we’re not going to see teams with 250 and 300 yards rushing against us.”
Downer returns as a starter at cornerback with Jared Pommerencke opposite him. Flores will be the third corner. Ken Pommerencke is back for his second year as the starting safety with junior Brad McKelvey backing him up.
On special teams, Yorke will be a three-year starter at kicker and Miller is back as the team’s punter.
The season doesn’t exactly start with a cupcake as the Lions will take on rival Jackson Memorial, which is coming off a sectional championship and is primed for another title run. If the Lions can get out of that game healthy and take some positives from it going into their B South schedule, they can put themselves in position to be a factor.
“We have offensive starters back and on defense we should be better against the run,” Van Wickle said. “I think we’re going to have a great year and shock some people in the Shore.”
Head Coach: Jim Sharples, 3rd season.
Career Record: 9-11.
Assistant Coaches: Vin Spadavecchia (off. coord.); Ryan Hesnan (LB); Keith Farr (DB); Frank Giannetti (DL); Ron Brown (RB); Anthony Myers (WR); Brad Chesley (OL); Matt Spader, Mike McCarthy, Len Albline (freshman); Chris Grande (athletic trainer).
2014 Record: 5-5 (4-3).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Ryan Downer, Jr., WR
Downer started at cornerback last season and will now step into a starting role at wide receiver. The Lions are looking for a No. 1 receiver after graduating Brett Ribellino, who had 32 catches for 522 yards and eight total touchdowns last season.
X-FACTOR: Stopping the run
Getting better against the run has been arguably the biggest goal for the Lions during the offseason, and with Central’s 2,000-yard back Mike Bickford, Lakewood’s Amir Tyler, Point Boro and its flexbone offense and Barnegat speedster Paul Wickwire in the division, stopping the run with consistency will make or break Liberty’s season.
GLUE GUY: Jared Dizenzo, Sr., OL/DL
A three-year starter on both sides of the ball and an anchor along the offensive line at center, Dizenzo is a key cog as the Lions look to score more points and play tighter defense.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Joe Low, Sr., WR/LB
Low, a hockey player, decided to come out for football and finds himself in the mix to start at both receiver and linebacker.
PIVOTAL GAME: October 25 at Barnegat
The Bengals have been the class of the division in recent years and will come at the Lions with speed out of the backfield. It will be a big test to see how much the Lions’ run defense has improved. A win here would be a huge step in the right direction for Liberty.