Ross High School’s football team is shifting its focus this season.
The Rams relied on size and strength last year, ultimately sending lineman Simon Stepaniak to Indiana University. The 2015 campaign will be more about speed and athleticism.
“How good these guys will be, I don’t know. We’re still a work in progress,” said Ross coach Brian Butts, who will have Kenyon Commins (offense) and Mark Hafner (defense) as his coordinators. “Good kids, work hard. Just a lot of question marks.”
The biggest are the offensive and defensive lines, which were wiped clean by graduation.
Butts feels he’s got some offensive playmakers. Senior quarterback Dustin Foley (5-10, 160) returns, as does senior Cole Hannon (5-11, 172), a wide receiver/running back last year who’s set to be the primary runner this season.
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Senior Reilly Ryder (5-7, 165) and junior Zach Arno (5-10, 165) are also returning receivers.
“We’ll be more of a true spread team this year,” Butts said. “We’re going to play very up-tempo. We’re trying to snap the ball about every 13 seconds. We feel like going faster on offense will help us and offset how young we are on the offensive line. This is probably the quickest group of skill kids we’ve ever had.”
Hannon is a standout return man and had 1,134 all-purpose yards as a junior. Foley threw for 755 yards and ran for 503 last year.
“Foley looks really good,” Butts said. “He is about impossible to touch if he’s in the open field. If the defense commits wrong, he’s in your secondary, and most secondary people can’t tackle him. He might be our best offense when he just improvises.
“We’ll throw the ball more this year than we have the last couple years. Our passing game will be our running game, short passing and keep the chains moving. We’re going to have to move the ball to the edges and give our athletes a chance in space.”
Senior Blake Marston (6-1, 175), junior Brennan Morton (5-10, 155) and junior Blake Niefield (6-1, 170) add to the deep receiving corps. Junior Sam Stepaniak (6-1, 180) leads the competition at tight end.
Projected O-line starters are senior Collin Gross (6-4, 320) at center, sophomores Sean Dye (5-9, 215) and T.J. Vicars (5-10, 220) at guard, and senior Jeremy Rosenblum (6-2, 270) and sophomore Thomas Woodruff (5-7, 240) at tackle. Junior Caleb Ake (5-8, 190) and sophomore Parker Orr (6-0, 220) should help when they get healthy.
“I think there is a lot of potential,” Butts said. “But realistically, those sophomores, you’d like them starting as juniors.”
The Rams’ most highly regarded offensive weapon may be Paul Young (6-1, 155), who’s ranked among the best junior place-kickers in the nation. He recently booted a 57-yard field goal in practice and will also do the punting for Ross.
RHS has just three starters returning within its 3-4 defense: Senior cornerbacks Jay Horton (5-10, 150) and Hannon, along with senior linebacker Austin McKee (5-11, 210).
Butts said McKee, who began last season as a tackle, is the Rams’ defensive leader.
“He’s our most physical kid,” Butts said. “He just has a knack for being around the ball.”
Sophomore Joe Valentine (6-0, 190) will play inside linebacker next to McKee. Senior Tyler Young (6-0, 160) and sophomore Austin Hamblin (5-11, 165) are the outside backers.
Marston and Niefield will play the safety positions, and Rosenblum and Gross are the nose guards. The tackle rotation includes junior Hunter Spears (5-10, 175) and seniors Taylor Sharp (6-0, 190), Aaron Combs (5-9, 230) and Nick Dummitt (5-8, 180).
Ross was voted sixth in the Southwest Ohio Conference coaches poll.
“We always want to play for a league title, but we understand there’s some big, strong, experienced teams in our league,” Butts said. “The good news is they’re all in the second half of our season. Our goal is to get to that half of the season with a winning record, and hopefully we’ve matured as a team by that point.”
The Rams will be on the road for their final scrimmage against Amelia on Friday at 7 p.m.