ARTHUR — Since playing football at Illinois College, Ryan Jefferson knew he wanted to become a head football coach.
"I felt more of a passion for the game, and I figured that would be another way to help lead young men, not only on the field, but help build their character," Jefferson said. "I knew it would take me a while to get my foot in the door and build my resume."
It didn't take Jefferson all that long to reach his goal. At 26 years old, Jefferson will guide the Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond football program this fall.
It's the Winchester native's first season in charge of a program that had seen Dale Schuring coach the Knights the previous 15 seasons before he was not rehired in March.
ALAH has not made the playoffs since 2014, but a 40-man roster stocked with a large sophomore class and a new system in place will try to reverse the recent trend.
"I'm eager," Jefferson said, "and the kids are ready."
An assistant coach at Winchester and Lawrenceville in the past, Jefferson will bring a wing-T offense and a 3-3-5 base defense to the Knights ahead of their season opener next Friday night at Tri-County.
"It'll bring something different to the conference," Jefferson said. "I'm trying to give our kids an identity that they can buy into. I really like the wing-T because you have your strong, physical smash-mouth running game and a lot of plays look similar so it sets you up for counters and things like that."
Operating the wing-T offense — which ALAH fans can see in action at 7 p.m. today in the program's Red and Gold Scrimmage — under center is senior Lance Mercer, who played wide receiver and defensive back in 2017.
"He came in early in the summer and he didn't ask to play quarterback, but I saw him throw the ball, and he can really sling it," Jefferson said. "He's got some good zip on his passes. I asked him if he wanted to play quarterback, and he said, 'Yeah, let's try it out.' He's a really good kid to be in the huddle because he's a good leader, and his work ethic is really good, so the kids really follow him."
Whenever Mercer isn't running the ball himself or dropping back to pass, sophomores Billy Fifer and Brady Borntrager are poised to receive carries, along with seniors Caleb Nettles and Adam Day.
"Brady is a little bit smaller, so he's more like an outside runner," Jefferson said, "whereas Billy is that tough, inside runner."
They'll run behind a veteran offensive line, spearheaded by seniors Isaac Ashenfelter and Hunter Day, along with junior Lucas Otto.
Defensively, Hunter Day and Otto are likely to see time at linebacker, with Mercer, Adam Day, Borntrager, sophomore Ben Carroll and sophomore Jamison Rocke slated to vie for playing time in the secondary.
Five teams on ALAH's schedule — Villa Grove/Heritage in Week 2, Arcola in Week 4, Decatur Lutheran in Week 6, Argenta-Oreana in Week 8 and Cumberland in Week 9 — reached the playoffs last season.
So Jefferson and his Knights will be tested throughout the regular season during the five-game Little Okaw Valley Northwest slate and the four crossover games against LOVC Southeast foes.
"It's so crazy because I wasn't familiar with any of these teams before taking the job," Jefferson said. "I've heard of them all, but I've never been around them. I've been watching a ton of Hudl and a ton of clips this summer, but the cool thing is that I'm not the only new coach in the conference. The first three teams on our schedule have new coaches. Even though I'm watching those teams and I know who is returning, I have no idea what they're going to be doing. Week 1 will be fun to come out and see what we have to adjust to."
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Aug. 24 at Tri-County 7 p.m.
Aug. 31 vs. Villa Grove/Heritage 7 p.m.
Sept. 7 at Martinsville 7 p.m.
Sept. 14 vs. Arcola 7 p.m.
Sept. 21 at Sangamon Valley 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 vs. Decatur Lutheran 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 at Cerro Gordo/Bement 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 vs. Argenta-Oreana 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 vs. Cumberland 7 p.m.