Following The Defense: 2018 Jackson Liberty Football Preview
It's year two of a new defensive scheme for Jackson Liberty installed by second-year defensive coordinator Jeff Schmidt under head coach Jim Sharples, who enters year number six at the helm of the Lions.
The Lions allowed 289 points in 2016 and that lowered last season to 232, a solid improvement towards a goal to tighten their defense even more this season.
"I think our defense was much improved last year with Jeff running his new defense and I think that's only going to get better," Sharples said. "The kids already know so much more than they did at this time last year."
Schmidt's multiple 4-3 defense mirrors what he used to help Allentown win a state sectional title in 2016 and is similar to the one Toms River East ran (where he coached the linebackers) that helped it reach the semifinals in 2009.
"It's a tough defense to learn but once you get it, it's not that hard," said senior Shane Simonson. "The defense works if you know what you're doing."
One of the reasons the Lions improved on defense last season is gone, and that's defensive end Nick Johnson, who graduated before appearing in the Shore Sports Network All-Shore Gridiron Classic this summer.
The Lions also lost two key offensive players in running back Jacquel Spears and lineman Joe Crouchman.
They face a challenge but one Sharples and his team are not backing away from as they enter the 2018 season with a host of returning players who will be tasked with helping the Lions take a step forward from a 3-7 season last year.
"Jimmy Celentano (junior), Jake Bosco (junior) and Garrett Blasi (junior) are all coming back with experience and that's a good thing," Sharples said. "Then there are the kids that sat back and watched the Nick Johnson's and Joe Crouchman's and they're ready to go."
There's likely to be multiple players that'll get the opportunity to fill in for some of the vacancies of players like Crouchman and Johnson.
"They were very good players and they're very hard to replace," said senior Yaron Moore. "I feel like the players who make the least amount of mistakes and know what they're doing are the players who are going to get those spots."
One of the players who may get the bulk of the carries filling the vacancy Spears left behind is Celentano, who will look to boost the offense.
"Jacquel was a good running back and I learned a lot behind him," Celentano said. "This year we have a couple returning starters on our O-Line that I think can really help the running game. I think we'll have a pretty good running game this year."
The Lions have some returning players who will be vying for spots all over the field.
"Jimmy Celentano started both ways last year and is one of our better players. He's going to get the brunt of the workload in the backfield," Sharples said. "Jake Bosco played slot receiver for us last year and he's back and in his second year playing varsity. Up front, Andrew Gallaway is a senior was pretty much behind Nick (Johnson) at tight end and also at defensive end. He's prepared himself and stepped up. Aidan Alverson is another senior lineman who is coming back. Evan Catron is our starting quarterback, he was a sophomore starter last year and is returning as a junior and things are a lot smoother for him. Joe Devito is a wideout/defensive back who gives us a lot and Shane Simonson is a three-year starter at middle linebacker."
While the defense improved last season, the Lions will need to address some offensive woes that led to them averaging just 13.3 points per game.
"We just really need to execute everything," Devito said. "Everyone needs to do their jobs and execute the plays coach Vin (offensive coordinator Vin Spaddevecchia) calls for us."
Throughout the offseason and into training camp the players have continued to work hard from the moment last season was finished.
"In November we started getting stronger, we knew we were going to switch our offense to a little more of a 'three-yards cloud of dust' offense where we had to be big and strong up front," Sharples said. "With a four-man front on defense, we knew that we would have to get big and strong. The kids did a great job, we got stronger across the board."
That will prove vital for a Lions team looking to compete in 2018 with an even smaller roster, so conditioning is among the most important parts of their preparation heading into Week 1.
"I think if you look around the Shore Conference, probably the state or even the country, football numbers are down and we're certainly no different," Sharples said. "Our school population has dropped a bit and now it's filtered down to the football team. We have about 40 varsity players and I told the kids it's going to be about being in phenomenal shape because we're probably going to have a lot of guys playing both ways."
At a Glance
Head coach: Jim Sharples, sixth season.
Career record: 17-33.
2017 Record: 3-7 (2-5).
Coaching staff: Vin Spaddevecchia (off. coord./QB); Jeff Schmidt (def. coord./LB); Matt Schmidt (OL); Ryan Hesnan (DB); Ron Brown (WR); Gerard O’Donnell (RB); Matt Spader (OL/special teams); Chris Grande (athletic trainer).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Yaron Moore, Sr., OL/DL
While Johnson was the biggest team loss, Joe Crouchman graduating also leaves a big void on the offensive line for the Lions. Moore will have to make the adjustments and provide a boost to an offense who struggled at times to score points in 2017.
X-FACTOR: Toughness and conditioning
Sharples said one of the main things they're preaching to the players is being tough, mentally and physically. "I think it's going to carry us through," Sharples said.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Andrew Gallaway, Sr., TE/DE
Gallaway jumps into a starting role after playing as a backup to Johnson last season. "He's 6-2, 220-pounds, he's one of our stronger kids and he's been waiting and working," Sharples said.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 7 at Barnegat
The Lions open their season with a familiar rival from their days in Class B South before facing Mater Dei, Matawan and Shore in consecutive weeks.
Vin Ebenau is a Shore Sports Network Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter @VinEbenau. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.