For the first time in the last three seasons, there is a more than a bit of unknowns as they Jefferson Falcons kick off a football season.
That’s because having last deep, talented senior classes to graduation the past two years, many of the names and faces are different for coach Jimmy Henson’s Falcons, who will host All-American Conference rival LaBrae on Friday night at Falcon Pride Stadium.
Even Henson, who will begin his ninth season at the helm of the Falcons on Friday night, knows there are a lot of questions this season.
However, questions go away with the discovery of answers.
“We have a lot of unknowns with this team,” he said.
Jefferson used a 21-13 triumph in Week 1 last fall against the Vikings in Leavittsburg as a catalyst to an 8-2 2013 season.
And the former Grand Valley star quarterback and defensive back, a member of the Ashtabula County Hall of Fame, said his squad has done well in terms of preparation toward getting off to the same kind of start this season.
“I think preseason went well,” he said. “There was a great deal of teaching and learning. We have several new starters on both sides of the ball and we needed to get better every day.
“I think we did that.”
While the Falcons have several questions, LaBrae has even more. The loss to Jefferson, which now leads this series, 5-3, was only a harbinger of things to come for the Vikings, who struggled through a 1-9 season, a 47-6 romp at Newton Falls in Week 7 representing their only win of the season.
On top of that, 6-foot-7 quarterback Peyton Aldridge, one of Trumbull County’s most recruited basketball players, chose not to play football as a senior.
That left first-year coach John Armeni with one more giant hole to fill, which he will do with junior Justin Jenkins. Unlike Aldridge, a tall pocket passer who completed 21 of 41 passes against Jefferson in the opener a year ago (to go with 1 TD pass, 4 interceptions), Jenkins is more of a typical high school signal caller, going 5-9, 170 pounds.
“He’s a dual threat,” Armeni said. “Anytime you have a kid that can run or throw, it’s going to make the defense worry. That’s what he brings to the table. You’re not going to be able to sit down and think they’re throwing all the time. You’re not going to be able to gear up against a run because he can do it all. I think defenses will have a hard time preparing for him.”
Though much is new about the Vikings, Henson said the Falcons won’t be caught off-guard.
“They run a spread offense that is very similar to ours,” he said. “They run jet sweep, counter trey, and some option. Their quarterback seems to be their best player, they have two nice tailbacks and a skilled receiving core.
“Their defense is an odd stack. They are a very aggressive defense that plays physical.”
As Jenkins was the Vikings’ leading rusher a year ago at tailback, Jamal Dawkins takes the reigns as the Vikings’ mainstay there.
“He’s taking a lot of the first-team reps,” Armeni said. “He’s fast. His cuts and vision have looked really well in the summer.”
Keevon Harris is the second of two running backs Henson referenced.
Jefferson, like LaBrae, will be sporting a new quarterback this season. Cole Erdel, a 6-2, 170-pound senior, will represent the Falcons’ third starting quarterback in the last three seasons, following in the footsteps of Connor Cleveland in 2011 and Tony Chiacchiero in 2012, both of whom earned Star Beacon Ashtabula County Player of the Year honors.
Erdel, in fact, scored the Falcons’ first touchdown last season. After ending the first quarter facing a 7-0 deficit in this matchup, Erdel, playing wide receiver, hauled in a 20-yard scoring strike from Chiacchiero to bring Jefferson back to even. He led the Falcons with six receptions for 58 yards in the game.
But Henson is smartly and typically focusing on the big-picture, not the snapshot of whom is lined up under center or in the shotgun.
“We must be able to play at Friday night speed,” he said. “We are inexperienced. We have to learn to play at varsity speed and intensity.
“In the first game, special teams is always a major factor.”
As will be the case for both teams as each will be playing a myriad of new guys.
“Can we make adjustments?” Henson said when asked about other keys to victory. “They have a new coach and new systems. I am sure they are going to do things we didn’t see in the scrimmages.
“Can we adjust?”
The same can be said for LaBrae, which fell on hard times last season after reaching the playoffs in 2011.
“We’ve set the bar pretty high,” Armeni said. “All offseason long, we’ve made them accountable behavior-wise. They’ve taken progress reports around. They’ve worked very hard in the weight room.
“They’ve conditioned very hard. We want to send a message that 1-9 isn’t good enough for our program. We want to go in each and every week and expect to win. Not only that, we want to put the work in so we know that we can win.”
In turn, when asked if his team is anxious, nervous, excited... or, a combination of all of that and more, Henson readily agreed.
“I believe it is a combination... why wouldn't it be?” he said. “(For) most of my kids, it will be there first start on Friday night, and those who have started, this is there senior year... their last go around.”