After losing most of their offensive line to graduation in 2011 and having most of their replacements fall to injury the following year, the Danville Little Johns struggled through a disappointing 2012, turning in a 2-7 record and finishing the season tied for sixth place.
Now, head coach D.J. Crane hopes that last year’s liability will translate into this year’s asset.
“The year before, we lost everybody on offense, and then, the guys that replaced them all got hurt,” Crane said. “So sophomores had to come in and play. … I think it was not good for last year, … but it’s benefited us this year because they’ve got all that experience. … Our top two running backs are back. Our top three receivers are back.”
As a result, the Little Johns’ strength this year will be in the experience they gleaned last season.
“I think right now our strength for sure on offense will be our skill positions because that’s mostly the guys that are returning from last year,” Crane said. “Our weakness early, I think, is probably going to be inexperience on the offensive line. We’ll start four sophomores, so we’re a little bit young there. … Our first three games will be very important.”
With 34 players on his roster, Crane said, one of the main keys to success this year will be to avoid injuries.
“Well, staying healthy is humongous for us,” he said. “I think that was a big part of us not making the playoffs last year; we got people hurt at really, really bad times, and that cost us some games, I think. We’ve just gotta try to stay healthy this year.”
And in the 4-3A Conference, Crane said, every game will be crucial.
“Honestly, in our conference, every game is one you have to circle,” he said. “It’s just so packed in there. … The conference is just so tough from top to bottom.”
But given the experience his players gained last season, coupled with gains in strength, speed and athleticism, Crane thinks his squad will have some surprises in store.
“We’ll be more explosive on offense because all those guys who played last year are a year older,” he said. “A huge majority of our offense is back.”
Leading that offense will be quarterback Brett Wilkins (5-10, 215). This year marks the first Wilkins has started as quarterback in senior high, but Crane said Wilkins went 16 and 1 in junior high and brings an arsenal of weapons that is perfectly matched to the Little Johns’ strengths.
“The things we really like doing are the things he’s good at,” Crane said. “So we really feel like he’s going to have a good year. He’s a really competitive kid who really likes to win, and he’s a really good leader.
“He’s got some good weapons to throw to, also.”
Two of those weapons are seniors Steven Ramirez (5-9, 180) and Alex Xayadeth (5-7, 155), who were the Little Johns’ top two receivers last year. Crane is looking for similar results again this year.
“We got both those guys back, and they’re threats, catching the ball on the perimeter … and catching the ball deep, and they’ve proven that,” he said.
Junior receiver Raine Cook (6-2, 160) will also be dangerous. Last year, as a sophomore, Cook scored three times in Danville’s 30-13 season-ending win against Atkins.
“So, he really started playing well at the end of the year as a sophomore …,” Crane said, “and this kid, as a ninth-grader, got third in the state in the 300 hurdles, … so that’s three guys on the perimeter who are good athletes and have good experience.”
In the backfield, junior tailback Grant Cathey (5-5, 140) returns, and “he’s put on about 30 pounds of muscle and gotten faster,” Crane said. “He is a really, really savvy football player. He can really read blocks and make cuts, and he has improved his speed tremendously, … so we’re looking for a really good year for him.”
Cathey is joined by junior running back Cole Tate (5-8, 200), who was Danville’s leading rusher last year until he sustained a season-ending high-ankle sprain in Week 4.
Senior Joe Donnell (5-7, 160) “does everything you want as far as blocking, and everything you want as far as catching the slant,” Crane said, “and he can come in and help us out.”
“Younger guys coming in that I think can help us would be Jamie Holbrook and Shawn Pettit (both 10th-graders),” the coach added. “Both of those guys are young but athletic, and I think [they’ll] be able to help us. So the skill positions … it looks pretty good right now.”
Up front, two-year starter Thomas Phayboun (5-9, 215) will play right guard and shepherd the younger players.
“He does a good job getting those little puppies, those sophomores, ready to go,” Crane said.
And even though the rest of the interior line is manned by sophomores, Crane said they are big, strong, athletic sophomores.
Sophomore left tackle Zane Frost is 6-2 and weighs 270, and right tackle Clayton Frick is 5-6 and weighs 195.
Left guard Rhett Sullivan (6-1, 220), and his twin brother, center Jordan Sullivan (6-1, 210), round out the interior line.
“We’ve been working with them since January, … so we’re hoping our scrimmage and the first three games will get them the experience to carry us in our conference,” Crane said.
Senior fullback Chance Hayden (6-0, 230) “is a really talented noseguard, but he’s gonna play fullback also,” Crane said. “He’s really, really strong and hard to bring down. He bench presses 300 pounds, power cleans 250 pounds, deadlifts 500 pounds and squats 400 pounds. He’s a strong, strong kid.
“So you can see it’s there; it’s just young.”