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Each day over the 2 1/2 weeks leading up to the 2019 IHSA football season, the News-Gazette will be previewing all 37 teams in its coverage area.

COLFAX — Jake Kennedy and his Ridgeview/Lexington football staff sat down during the offseason, discussing the subject of Jared Leake.

More specifically, the collection of coaches talked about how the Mustangs could better keep the ball in the hands of their senior quarterback, one of their best returning playmakers after losing three rushing powers on offense.

Gone are Tate Walcott, Ryan Benton and Josh Hardman, the trio that carried the ball 200 times for 1,360 yards and 18 touchdowns during the 2018 season. That leaves Leake to not only step up and lead the offense, but also fill the void of leadership and experience his former cohorts left behind.

The only catch? This season will only be Leake’s second ever playing quarterback.

“I just saw a drastic change in how much harder he’s worked in the offseason,” Kennedy said. “That’s an age thing, maybe football adding that this-is-it mentality. When you know that this is it, the fire burns a little stronger in him.”

Leake’s debut season under center didn’t break any statistical charts, going 19 of 49 in the passing game with 253 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions, but that factored more into the “run first, run hard” approach of the offense.

It didn’t help matters the Mustangs were also dealing with multiple injuries to the offensive line and working with an inexperienced receiving corps.

Kennedy said, however, it was in the second half of a Week 6 home loss to Tremont where he started seeing Leake finding his groove and trusting himself as a passer.

“He made some plays that made me say, ‘OK, we’ve got something here that’s more than we probably thought we had,’” Kennedy said. “I thought Jared’s last four games he played really, really well for us.”

Not that there isn’t plenty of room for improvement in Leake’s second and final campaign. Kennedy said Leake sometimes held onto the ball too long last season, trying to force the play to completion exactly the way it was drawn up instead of adjusting on the fly.

Some of that comes with age, Kennedy believes, and learning to feel comfortable within your own game, but he also said he and his coaches work on helping Leake along the process.“We try to stress to Jared all the time that the play goes here, but the map doesn’t always work,” Kennedy said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make a read, make a turn and go the other way.”

Getting Leake to go is also part of his challenge this season with the Mustangs looking to improve upon his 12 carries for 10 yards and incorporate him more into the run game alongside fellow senior Grant VanVickle.

VanVickle will take over primary rushing duties this season after injuries mostly forced him to play defense last year. Still, he averaged 4.0 yards on 56 carries in 2018 and will have the blocking support of fellow senior Dylan Jones, who is a sturdy fixture on both lines and notched 8 sacks at defensive end last season.

The talents of senior wide receiver DJ Schroeder are also at the offense’s disposal, as the Mustangs build toward their Aug. 30 season opener at home against Rockford Christian with the hopes of improving their 4-5 record from a year ago — a disappointing mark for Kennedy with playoffs as the primary target.

“That’s the goal, right?” Kennedy said. “You hope the success in the weight room gives them confidence out on the football field. And in that attitude and the toughness, it’s about, ‘OK, I don’t want this to happen to us again this year.’”

Sports Copy Editor

Jordan J. Wilson is a sports copy editor at The News-Gazette. His email is jwilson@news-gazette.com.