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NTL FOOTBALL: YOUNG, WILDCATS SEEK TURN-AROUND IN 2020 (2020-09-10)

By TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — The Athens Wildcats are coming off one of the roughest seasons in program history, but veteran coach Jack Young is hoping a wealth of young, talented athletes with another year’s experience under their belts, and a trio of new additions to his coaching staff will help turn things around in 2020.

Coming off a 1-10 season, Athens returns nearly en tact on both sides of the ball, but Young believes the addition of Athens alums Aaron Barry and Gabe Sporn — both 2016 grads, and former Canton great Matt Machmer to the coaching staff could be the a big difference-maker for the Wildcats.

“Our two young coaches  — Aaron Barry and Gabe Sporn — have had a tremendous impact on our team already,” said Young. “They are two young guys who are going to go on and have great careers in their chosen field.

“They both just graduated from college, but Covid-19 threw monkey wrenches into their plans,” he noted. “Because of X, Y, and Z, both asked to help out, and now they’re full-time coaches.

“They have provided such a shot in the arm of energy. They’ve even given given me a shot of energy I haven’t had in years.

“If you know them, and their history with our program, it’s no surprise,” continued Young. “They were two of the best leaders we’ve had. Their senior year (2015 season), we beat teams we weren’t suppose to beat, and we won a league title.

“They’ve taken on responsibility, they’ve shown initiative, and the kids are responding to them. It is refreshing,” he added.

And Machmer, he brings a confidence with him in his approach, said Young.

“(Matt Machmer) brings that cool character attitude … he’s doing a great job teaching. He’s doing a tremendous job with our defensive backs and receivers.

“I don’t know if his own son realizes how good of an athlete, and football player (Matt) was,” said Young. “The kids are really responding to him.

“The coaches we lost are three of my best friends. They moved on to do their thing in life,” added Young. “Covid-19 really seemed to throw a monkey wrench into what was happening with our coaching staff, but I couldn’t be happier with our three new guys.”

Young notes Keith Kline, Steve Satterly, and Mike Keathley are all back on his staff this year, and have helped maintained continuity in the preseason.

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One spot of contention for the Wildcats in recent years has been its offensive line play, but Young notes the unit returns more experience than in recent years.

Juniors Troy Pritchard and Dylan Harford will man the center position, with Harford also possibly seeing time elsewhere along the line, while seniors Connor Sindoni and Lucas Aquilio will start at guard, and seniors Ian Wright and Zac Gowin will start at tackle.

Junior Vaughn Wagnecz will provide depth at guard, and junior Tom Forrest will add depth at tackle.

Junior Troy Jennings will start at tight end, with sophomore Chris Mitchell also seeing action there.

“There were a lot of guys who played on the offensive line last year, and most of them are returning,” said Young. “Our depth should be better. Right from the 1s through the 2s, we should be better.

“To this point, it’s showed mentally,” added Young. “Now, they have to put it together on Friday nights.”

Sophomore Mason Lister returns to run the offense. He threw for 1,273 yards and 11 TDs, and rushed for five TDs last year, but threw nine interceptions.

“(Mason) is bigger, stronger, and a year older,” said Young. “He needs to show maturity and keep growing from last year.

“His arm is even stronger than it was last year,” smiled Young. “I think he’s going to end up being pretty darn good.”

Junior Shayne Reid, who rushed for 758 yards and eight TDs in 2019, and sophomore Caleb Nichols are set to see most of the action at tailback, and senior Tanner Dildine and Troy Jennings will get the majority of time at fullback.

Sophomore Chris Bathgate adds depth at tailback, and junior Josiah Stringham will add depth at fullback.

Six-foot, four-inch junior J.J. Babcock, the leading returning receiver with 13 catches for 238 yards and two TDs in 2019, will start at split end, with first-year junior Tucker Brown and sophomore Jaden Wright also seeing time there.

Junior Karter Rude will get the starting nod at flanker, with junior Jared Peterson and Reid (10 catches for 161 yards and two TDs) also seeing time there.

Young is pleased with the number of athletes he has at the skill positions, and their flexibility.

“Reid and Karter Rude will play a little bit of everywhere,” he said. “And, we have several guys who can play multiple positions.”

Young also believes he has play-makers.

“Our skill guys are all capable of making plays.

“J.J. Babcock is pushing 6-4, so he gives us that element,” he said. “Right down the list — Shayne Reid, Jared Peterson, Karter Rude, Tucker Brown — all athletes. Even two young guys like Jaden Wright and Brandon Jennings are two young, superb athletes who are providing us with depth.”

Young also believes a pair of first-year varsity players could make a splash.

“Karter (Rude) has come right in and made an impact,” said Young. “He’s an intelligent athlete, and he’s played some football before.
 
“Even though he missed his freshman and sophomore years, he’s slowly becoming a leader on our team. He’s vocal, and leads by example,” continued Young. “He and Shayne (Reid) don’t know anything, but full speed, and other guys feed off them.

“And, Tucker (Brown) is a superb athlete, but he’s never played football before, so the learning curve is a little bit bigger. I think he can help us,” noted Young.

“It’s exciting to have this depth. We can give guys a blow when they need it,” added Young. “The only difference between some of these guys is a little bit of experience.”

Young notes the Wildcats only have one senior at the skill positions, but believes he will be a difference-maker.

“Tanner Dildine is a different kid this year,” said Young. “He’s worked his tail off in the weight room, and he’s probably put on 12 to 15 pounds of muscle.

“He wants the big moments, and he wants the big responsibilities, which is awesome — that’s what you want out of your leaders,” added Young.

During the preseason, Young has preached patience to his charges, but he also knows he’ll need to practice what he preaches.

“Patience is my biggest concern for our offense,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s in the run game, or the passing game, we need to be patient and take care of the ball.

“Patience goes for the coach, too,” noted Young. “When you have the weapons we have, and a quarterback who can absolutely sling the pigskin, I have to be smart and patient.

“I think you’re going to see a little bit of a different Athens offense this year,” Young added.

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Defensively, the Wildcats allowed more than 33 points per game last season, and Young said defense has been a priority.

“We’re just trying to do a good job of being on the same page.

“We’re trying to be a little bit more multiple,” said Young. “When you look at what offenses are doing today — they’re either trying to spread the field and throw the ball, or spread the field and run the ball.

“As much as offenses are trying to be multiple, defensively we need to be multiple, too,” added Young. “I think we’re putting ourselves in a good position.”

The Wildcats defensive line in the 4-3 scheme will be anchored by Ian Wright, Sindoni, and Aquilio, with Forrest, Mitchell, and freshman Josh Nittinger all seeing action.

“We’ll move all our guys around on the defensive line — they’ll play both tackle and defensive end,” said Young.

The Wildcats also have some good size in the trenches.

“Ian Wright has come along way. He’s lost a little weight, he’s down around 300 pounds now,” said Young. “He could be a force for us, but I can’t say his name without mentioning Connor Sindoni, who is around 275 pounds, and Tom Forrest (320 pounds) is working hard and you’ll see him contributing on both sides of the ball.

“We have some size and space-eaters in the middle,” noted Young. “If we can manage them properly, and dominate on the line-of-scrimmage, it’s going to make other things so much easier.

“We’re a little bit inexperienced and don’t quite have the right guys we want at defensive end … if we can figure out the right combination up front, I think we have a chance to be pretty good,” added Young. “Similar to offense, if we can manage the line-of-scrimmage, we’re going to be in great shape. We have to be able to control the line-of-scrimmage.”

Young said the Wildcats have four linebackers that will get the majority of playing time in the three spots, led by Dildine.

“Tanner is the leader of our defense, it doesn’t matter which linebacker position he’s playing — and he can play them all, he’s the leader,” said Young. “We’re looking for big things from him.”

Troy Jennings, Harford, and Nichols will all see a great deal of time at linebacker, and Stringham will add depth.

“My biggest concern defensively is probably linebacker play,” said Young.

“We have a mixture of types of players there. Tanner Dildine is our truest linebacker … Troy Jennings and Dylan Harford have both worked and gotten bigger and stronger.

“Troy and Dylan were pressed into action last year,” noted Young. “They might not have been ready for varsity football, but there wasn’t much choice. They showed so much composure last year — not getting frustrated, and working hard to get better.

“Now, we’re going to be better as a team, so they have to step it up a little bit,” Young added.

The abundance of skill players on offense carries over into the secondary, says Young.

“We have a lot of athletes for the secondary, and they are all juniors and sophomores,” he said. “And, they are inter-changeable.”

Rude and Bathgate will start at the safety spots, and Reid and Peterson will get the nod at cornerbacks.

Jayden Wright, Brown, and Brandon Jennings will also vie for time in the secondary.

On special teams, Nichols will handle the punting and kick-off duties, while Reid will kick field goals and extra points

Troy Jennings and Brandon Jennings will handle the long-snapping duties.

Reid, Peterson, Nichols, and Rude will see the majority of action returning punts and kicks.

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With such uncertainty surrounding the season, and a schedule that resembles nothing NTL followers have ever seen before because of Covid-19 restrictions, it’s doubtful there will be any Small or Large School champions recognized, and there may not be a PIAA postseason.

“As we’ve been preaching to our kids, ‘let’s just focus on the things we can control,’” said Young.

“We can’t control who can come to the game. We can’t control if they cancel the season next week, or in five weeks, so let’s just focus on us. Our approach is week to week — be undefeated each week.

“The kids have been doing a great job of coming to practice every day, and working hard,” added Young. “That’s all we can ask.”

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IN PHOTO: Athens junior Shayne Reid. … VSR STOCK PHOTO.

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