Finding Their Way: 2020 Jackson Liberty Football Preview
It's been a tough go for the Jackson Liberty Lions the last few years.
There's been progress along the way but little to show for it on Friday nights with consecutive losing seasons.
In the last three seasons, they've added defensive coordinator Jeff Schmidt to resurrect the defense and they switched from a pro-style to a triple-option offense to try and take advantage of their strengths and to put more points on the board than the 9.1 average per game in 2018.
In 2019, they scored 106 points by the end of the season but the first three games were all shutout losses, followed by a 35-0 drubbing of Lakewood in Week Four, their only regular-season win.
Head coach Jim Sharples, who enters year number eight in the Lions' Den, is optimistic the triple-option offense will bear more fruit this season.
"This year we're getting down the subtleties and nuances and things should be a lot better," Sharples tells the Shore Sports Network.
It was a rough start, to put it lightly, last season for the Lions but even though they lost their final three games, all of them were close and Sharples is hoping to build on that with this year's team that is young. There are, however, only 35 players on the roster, meaning there are several two-way starters.
"For some reason, it seems like we've been stuck in a young team mode for the last couple years and even again this year," Sharples said. "There's a lot of sophomores, a handful of juniors and not a big senior class with just 10 kids. It's going to be trying again in terms of our experience but the kids are growing."
Sharples said there were several freshmen players last season who ended up contributing on the varsity level and they can use that experience to help the team in 2020.
At A Glance
Projected Starters: RS=returning starter
Offense: Pistol Option
QB: Jayvon Vilus, Sr., RS
RB/FB: Gian Libassi ,Sr.
WR: Connor Gallagher, Jr.
WR: Casey Braun, Sr., RS
SLOT: Cooper Yorke, Jr., RS
SLOT: Zach Corrado, So.
LT: Jack Duke, Jr.
LG: Matt Romero, Jr.,
C: Brandon Bittar, So.
RG: Sal Pierro, Sr., RS
RT: Ethan Connor, Sr.
DT: Kai Wilson, Sr., RS
DT: Brandon Bittar, So., RS
DT: Sal Pierro, Sr., RS
DE: Matt Romero, Jr.
DE: Ethan Connor, Sr.
LB: Gian Libassi, Sr., RS
LB: Donta Roberto Jr.
LB: Cooper Yorke, Jr., RS
CB: Casey Braun, Sr., RS
FS: Connor Gallagher, Jr.
SS: Zach Corrado, So., RS
K: Cooper Yorke, Jr., RS
P: Cooper Yorke, Jr., RS
Head Coach: Jim Sharples, 8th season
Career Record: 22-47
Team Record Last Five Years:
Assistant Coaches: Jeff Schmidt (Defensive Coordinator/LB); Dan Gorzynski (Offensive Coordinator/QB); Matt Schmidt (OL); Gerard O’Donnell (DB); Jimmy Lopez (DL); Matt Spader (WR); Matt Fergusen (freshmen); Chris Grande (Athletic Trainer).
Player to Watch: Jayvon Vilus, Sr., QB/DB
Jake Bosco was one of the Lions' best players the last couple seasons but his absence this season following graduation opens up the door to his backup at quarterback. Jayvon Vilus also got some reps in the slot last season along with running a fair amount of plays at quarterback when Bosco was banged, so he's learned the triple-option offense fairly well. If he continues to learn and do so quickly, the Lions will be fun to watch.
Player Under the Radar: Cooper Yorke, Jr., WR/DB
This junior is an important part of the offense, Sharples said, and spent the preseason working at wide receiver and defensive back but also took some snaps at quarterback to back up for Jayvon Vilus.
Yorke will be asked to fill a couple of different roles this season and will need to make sure every play is impactful.
"He's got really good hands, he's a big kid, you can put him in the slot, you can put him out wide...he's an important contributor for us," Sharples said.
Impact Newcomer: Matt Romero, Jr., LG/DE
The newest Lion to the pack was a Jaguar a season ago where he started on a Jackson Memorial team that lost in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 4 state sectional championship game. The offense where he played left guard last season scored 211 points. Romero's presence here could help give Jayvon Vilus more time in the pocket to make decisions in the triple-option offense and on the blindside to keep him from getting injured or banged up at a position that's had a slight issue there in recent seasons.
Top Position Group: Defense
The defense has been a strong point for the Lions over the last few seasons in a 4-3 look and players who've adapted quickly to the package of plays being called. Jackson Liberty gave up the second-fewest points in the Freedom Division last season (158) trailing only Colts Neck (111) and neither team finished in the top two. The Lions had some close games to finish out last season, if they continue to play stingy defense then they'll win those kinds of games this year with an offense still finding its way.
Big Shoes To Fill: Gian Libassi, Sr., RB/FB/LB
Jimmy Celentano leaves behind a void at running back following graduation that Gian Libassi will have to fill this season for the Lions to put points on the board and put themselves in a position to win games.
Libassi didn't get a lot of reps last year as Celentano's backup but Sharples has high praise for him.
"He is going to be an important contributor for us at that position," Sharples said. "He's an important player for us both ways."
X-Factor: The triple-option offense
Jackson Liberty scored only 106 points in its first year running the triple option and in order to make some noise this season and score points, they'll need Jayvon Vilus to be in locked with Connor Gallagher, Casey Braun, Cooper Yorke and Zach Corrado at wide receiver. They will not only need to know the offense and run it well, but run it with enough precision to keep defenses guessing and chasing.
Friday, Oct. 2 – vs. Toms River East, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 9 – vs. Point Boro, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 16 – at Neptune, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 23 – at Marlboro, noon
Friday, Oct. 30 – vs. Lakewood, 7 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 6 – vs Jackson Memorial, 7 p.m.
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