Football – Changing the Atmosphere: 2017 Jackson Liberty Preview
A defensive scheme that helped Allentown win a state sectional title last year and one similar to the one Toms River East ran that helped it get to within a game of the finals in 2009, and now it's at Jackson Liberty, which could turn things around quick for the Lions in 2017.
Jeff Schmidt, who was the linebackers coach at Toms River East in 2009 and was the defensive coordinator for Central Jersey Group IV champion Allentown last season, now calls the defense for Jackson Liberty.
While the offense will seem more parallel to last seasons pistol formation, the defense will appear much like a 4-3 or multiple-set.
Fifth-year head coach Jim Sharples was excited to bring him on board, as were his players.
"He's (Schmidt) simplified things, which is what I always try to do as well, and he has a great system for doing that," said Sharples. "When things are simple and kids don't have to think and can run free and play free, better things are going to happen for your defense."
Sharples said he's seen the improvement over the course of the preseason with the players adapting to the change in defense.
"The kids are picking up on the defense and as we go forward it'll get a little more second nature to them," said Sharples. "I think we're going to be moving around and flying around a lot and hopefully you see a big improvement on defense."
"He (Schmidt) wants us to be more physical in practice," said senior defensive end Nick Johnson. "He pushes us in practice. I like the defense he runs."
With other teams in the Class B South division return a lot of their offensive weapons like Point Boro, Lakewood or Lacey, Sharples believes competing and winning games against their rivals will depend on how sharp their defense is.
"B South is pretty interesting because it is a diverse collection of offenses," said Sharples. "Pinelands has the single-wing, no splits, double-tight offense and then we hit a flexbone type offense at Point Boro, so you have to be able to adjust on the fly. Week-to-week game-planning is a challenge."
While every team is competitive, Sharples says they always feel like they have a chance to win some rivalry games every year and this season is no different.
"We beat a 7-0 Point Boro team one year and we were .500," said Sharples. "I'd like to think that if we can get out there and finish near the top or middle of the pack and get ourselves in the playoffs, that's our goal."
Winning the B South will be tough, but the players seem to be up to the challenge.
"I think we'll have a lot more stops this season," said Johnson.
"It's one game at a time but I'm very confident that we'll make the playoffs this year," said senior lineman Joe Crouchman. "Defensively we're reading our keys well and the O-Line got stronger in the offseason and now we're executing our plays."
With a lot of returning players and young talent on the team this season Sharples feels they're ready to go.
"We're definitely much better prepared physically with all the kids working hard in the offseason," said Sharples. "Jimmy Celentano is a running back and a linebacker and he's doing a really good job for us, Jake Bosco is another impressive athlete who plays slot receiver and corner back and Garrett Blasi is a good sized lineman, Ilya Sivkov is going to be a linebacker for us, Jake Stasiunas is a safety for us."
Those are just the young kids. There's a senior-led group of talented players he expects to play well this year.
"Nick Johnson is a three-year starter and he's going to be, I think, one of the better players in the Shore this year," said Sharples. "He's really toned himself up and prepared himself in the offseason. Joe Crouchman is a big-strong lineman and is a two-year starter."
Their offense will need to be turned around as well and one of the players tasked with that is senior running back Jaquel Spears.
"Everyone's working on the line including Joey Crouchman and everyone else whose working as hard as they can to push and beat Jackson Memorial (Week 1)," said Spears. "If everybody does what they need to do, we'll come together as a team and win."
Head coach: Jim Sharples, fifth season.
Career record: 14-26.
2016 Record: 1-9 (1-6).
Assistant coaches: Jeff Schmidt (DC/LB); Ryan Hesnan (DB); Ron Brown (WR); Vin Spaddevecchia (QB/OC); Gerard O’Donnell (RB); Matt Spader (OL/special teams); Chris Grande (athletic trainer).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Shane Simonson, Jr., LB
Simonson will be tasked of filling the void left by Steven Schuster, who was a two-time All-Division player. Sharples said Simonson is "kind of like the captain of our defense now", and will also have to be someone Schmidt can rely on to help improve this defense.
X-FACTOR: Offensive line
The defense is bound to improve for a team which gave up 289 points in 2016. If the offensive line provides ample protection for the running and passing games, this will put them in a better position to win some games.
GLUE GUY: Nick Johnson, Sr., OL/DE
Sharples notes his size, talent and ability on the field but is also someone the team can rally around and look up to.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Jayson Nammi, So., RB/WR
The sophomore is described by his head coach as an "electrifying player" and could provide a nice combo to go along with Jaquel Spears in the backfield this season.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 23 at Lakewood
Jackson Liberty will have a tough opener on the road against Jackson Memorial in Week 1 but may have a manageable game week two vs. Manchester. If they're 1-1 at that point, the Lakewood game becomes critical if they want to have a shot at the playoffs.
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.