Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — Longtime Athens football coach Jack Young has a boatload of skill-position players back, but acknowledges his team’s success in 2021 depends on how the Wildcats play up front.

(Athens opens the 2021 campaign at home Friday night against Hanover Area. Game time is 7 p.m.)

“Our line is our biggest concern, but if they keep working the way they have been, and they keep improving, I think we have the potential to be a pretty dangerous football team,” said Young.

“The better we get up front, the more dangerous we’re going to be,” he noted. “We’re trying to pretty simple right now … the simpler we are, it might be the best way to get the ball into people’s hands.

“Our goal isn’t to be the most complex offense going, our goal is to be good and fundamental, and get the ball into the hands of our skill-position players and let them make plays.

“I expect this to be a fun football team, but we can’t be fun if we don’t take care of the little things,” continued Young. “I think the sky is the limit, if we continue to get better up front.

“The big question will be: when we play teams that are bigger and better than us up front, can we hang in there?” added Young. “That will be the huge key for us.”

Senior Dylan Harford will anchor the offensive line at center, with sophomore Josh Nittinger, and senior Logan Menard flanking him at the guards, and junior Joe Blood and senior Tom Forrest manning the tackle spots.

Senior Owen Wagnecz, juniors Skyler Matthews and Dylan Towner, and freshman Caleb Nason will provide depth along the line.

Seniors Troy Pritchard and Ethan Wilcox will get the starting nod at tight end.

Junior QB Mason Lister will direct the offense. Junior Karter Rude and sophomore Gage Stull are 2-3 on the depth chart.

Seniors Troy Jennings and Josiah Stringham, and junior Chris Bathgate will all vie for time at fullback, while senior Shayne Reid and juniors Caleb Nichols will get the bulk of the work at tailback. Bathgate, and junior Jaden Wright will also vie for time at tailback.

Rude and senior J.J. Babcock will start at wide receiver, with “a long list of back-ups” also vying for time. They are senior Jared Peterson, juniors Matt Machmer, and Chris Mitchell, sophomore Josh Martin, and freshmen Kolsen Keathley and Zavier Watson.

“A couple of our skill guys won’t start for us, but I think they’d be starters on a lot of teams,” said Young.

“In year’s past, if someone went down, we couldn’t do certain things offensively; that shouldn’t happen to us this year.

“If someone cramps up, and we have to put someone else in, we should be able to continue doing what we’re doing, and not drop off at all, and that’s why it’s so important for us to keep getting better up front,” Young added.

Young believes the Wildcats have a few players who are “off the radar,” but could make an immediate impact in 2021.

“Chris Bathgate might not have the jets, and his style of play might not be as pretty as some of the other guys, but he might be one of best-kept, dangerous secrets we have,” said Young.

“He is going to make plays, there’s no doubt in my mind, on both sides of the ball,” he noted. “He’s not a starter on offense, but he may be one of our most dangerous players.

“And, you absolutely want to keep you eyes on our freshmen wide receivers (Kolsen Keathley and Xavier Watson), they will both be on the field Friday night,” added Young.

Defensively, Nittinger and Menard will anchor the defensive line at tackle, with Matthews, Forrest, Blood, Wagnecz, Towner, and Nason also likely to see time.

Pritchard and “a plethora of guys” will man the defensive end spots.

“Troy Jennings will play both end and linebacker, based on what we’re doing defensively,” said Young.

Mitchell, sophomore Noah Fricker, and Nittinger will also likely see time at defensive end.

Harford will start at middle linebacker in the 4-3, and Stringham will see time there as well.

Troy Jennings, Nichols, Martin, and Stringham will see time at outside linebacker.

“We’re basically looking at five guys for three spots,” Young said.

Young believes the secondary will be a strength for the Wildcats.

“We’re going to be pretty talented in the secondary. We have guys not starting there, who have played a lot of football,” he said.

Peterson and Reid will start at cornerback, with Machmer and Wright backing them up.

“Machmer and Wright both played significant minutes on varsity last year,” said Young.

Bathgate will get the starting nod at strong safety, with Reid, Keathley, and Watson likely to see time there as well.

Rude will start at free safety, with junior Brandon Jennings backing him up.

Young has a couple of concerns on defense.

“Our main concern is being inexperienced up front. We need to find the guys who can the job done there.

“And, depth at linebacker is also a concern,” said Young. “We’d love to be a little deeper at linebacker, but we’re not right now.”

On special teams, Pritchard will handle long-snapping duties, with Troy Jennings, and Keathley capable of stepping in if needed.

Nichols will handle the punting chores, with Lister his back-up.

“Nichols is a good one, and Lister has really surprised me,” said Young. “As a freshman, he couldn’t punt. He improved last year, and this year he’s improved again.

“We have two really solid punters.”

Reid will handle the place-kicking chores, with Nichols his back-up.

Rude and Reid will handle the majority of the punt and kick return duties.

“We have two good return men in (Karter) Rude and (Shayne) Reid, and we have a handful of guys that will be good backing them up. The return game shouldn’t be an issue, as long as we execute.”

Throughout the preseason, Young has been impressed with his team’s work ethic.

“I can’t say I’m shocked, but I’ve been so pleased with how hard these kids have been working,” he said. “We’ve been efficient in practice. The older kids are sharing reps, and that’s how we get better.”

“I think our division is going to be real competitive,” said Young. “I would say Canton has to be the team to watch, at least in the beginning.

“One or two injuries could change the entire outlook in the league. I think that’s the common thread for everyone right now — trying to create depth.

“Our main goal is to be a factor, and take a shot at winning the division — that’s our first goal,” added Young.


IN PHOTO 1: Athens senior Shayne Reid. … VSR STOCK PHOTO.