Kroner's football tour '14: SJ-O
ST. JOSEPH — Football coach Dick Duval is a little leery of the prognosticators saying great things about the St. Joseph-Ogden football team.
“So many people are talking us up, like we’re something special this year,” said Duval, who guided the school into the Class 3A state finals last November. “We have good skill kids (returning), but the key to success is in the offensive and defensive lines.
“You have to have the people up front to make sure the skill kids can do good things.”
The line includes two seniors who started in the state championship game, guards Janssen Sage and Nolan Woller (who may shift to tackle). Another senior, Jake Behrens, saw significant time up front and can play guard or tackle.
From there, at least seven other Spartans are bidding for playing time on either the offensive or defensive line: Gage Haga, Alex Izard, Wes Kibler, Austin Luebchow, Gunnar Meeker, Shane Skinner and Nick Walden. Skinner is one of the team’s smallest players but is a candidate at nose guard, assistant coach Marshall Schacht said, because “he is hard to block.”
Duval acknowledges the question marks on the line are his “biggest worry,” adding, “Last year, it seemed like there were a hundred of them. We had a bunch of interchangeable parts. This year, the depth is not there. There are fewer candidates, and we’re not as versatile.
“We’re trying to stay away from two-way players (on the line). It’s so hard to double up, unless you’re a special kid.”
A veteran backfield includes quarterback Eli Oltean, who started the first four games a year ago, Orion Ciota, last year’s rushing leader, and Connor Janes. Ciota and Janes are also linebackers, and Janes has been receiving attention from numerous major college coaches.
Duval said Oltean doesn’t need any undue pressure.
“We’ve told him there’s two pretty good guys behind him, and he doesn’t have to carry the team,” Duval said. “We like to mix it up (on offense). With the two guys we have as running backs, when we throw people won’t be as ready.”
The coach likes the receiving corps, which includes Jake Pence. Pence showed he could catch passes last year, picking off six thrown by opposing quarterbacks. Eastern Illinois University baseball recruit Cole Berry, Ty Brown, Brandon Sparks and Austin Whitlock, a senior playing for the first time, are among the others who will be targeted on passing routes.
Receiver is not Brown’s best position, but Duval said it could be a way to get him on the field. He missed all of last year with an injury.
“He has huge potential,” Duval said. “He’s at receiver this year because we’re thick in the backfield. I expect him to be the tailback next year. He’s the real deal.”
Sparks, a receiver/defensive back, is one of SJ-O’s most improved players.
“He’s more confident running his routes and more physical as a defensive back,” Duval said. “The confidence coming from being a senior has helped a lot.”
Coach: Dick Duval, 27th year
2013 record: 11-3
2014 roster size: 65
Home opener: Aug. 29, vs. Paxton-Buckley-Loda, 7 p.m.