First-year head coach Kenyon Commins has two main goals for his Ross High School football team: Raise the intensity and become a better reflection of the community it represents.
After spending four years as an assistant for the Rams, Commins was promoted to replace Brian Butts, who resigned this offseason.
Commins has the task of trying to turn around a team that finished 2-8 last year, ending on a seven-game losing streak, and a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2013. He has some good ideas how to do that.
“Obviously being there the last four years has allowed me to get an inside track of what I think should be fixed and the changes I wanted to make from the staff all the way down to lifting and practice and those things,” Commins said. “My focus is the overall intensity and enthusiasm about what’s going on.
“In the past it was almost treated like intramurals. We were unemotional, and that snowballs into a lot of other things. Effort is a huge thing. I preach being a reflection of the community, and everyone out here is a blue-collar person. If you watch the football team that represents it, it doesn’t seem like hard-working kids. That’s the biggest thing I wanted to attack.”
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Hiring high-energy assistants was the first step in that plan, Commins said, because the staff needs to reflect the qualities it is trying to bring out in the players.
Only a handful of assistants from seventh grade on up to varsity remained on board after Butts left, so the program truly is rebuilding with a fresh start, and that began in the weight room this offseason. Commins stressed the need for players to get bigger and stronger in order to become the workhorse type of team Ross would like to see.
“I’m really anxious to get going, but I was probably just as anxious to get into the weight room, which is still probably the biggest area we need to improve in,” Commins said. “That is the first place we wanted to see that intensity and energy level raised.”
Personnel-wise on the field, Ross returns about six starters on defense and five on offense, but several others got playing time or were out of position and have been moved to new roles.
Commins believes the defense will be the Rams’ strong suit as the area with the most experience coming back. Among the top players returning on that side of the ball are senior linebackers Joe Valentine, Austin Hamblin and Andrew Records, senior defensive lineman Logan Lange, and defensive backs Jordan Hodge, Eathan Minges and Sean Lange.
Valentine was a second-team All-Southwest Ohio Conference player last year and Hodge tied the school record for most interceptions in a season with five as a sophomore in 2016.
“I always want to be a defensive-oriented program,” Commins said. “We will lean on them early in the season, especially schematically, because the offense is usually slower to come around. It will take a little while before we hit our stride offensively, so they might have to carry the load for a few weeks.”
Ross lost three of its top four statistical leaders on offense with quarterback Zach Arno, running back Brennan Morton and wide receiver Blake Niefield graduating.
Junior Dylan Zimmerman, who led the team with 336 receiving yards last year, is expected to slide in at quarterback with Minges backing him up, but the Rams are being cautious with Zimmerman this preseason after he tweaked a groin. Commins said both quarterbacks can “zing it around the yard a little,” but Ross will remain a run-oriented team looking to control the clock.
The backfield will take on a running back by committee look with guys like senior Jacob Brewer, sophomore Mehki Bouldin and junior Shay Mather sharing carries. They will work behind a fairly experienced offensive line that returns junior Taylor Polly and seniors TJ Vicars and Tommy Woodruff, who blew out his ACL in the first game last year and missed the entire season.
Sophomore Keith Collier and junior Garrett Boyle also are in the mix to start up front.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got new sets of eyes on these guys, so a lot of players are getting looks that weren’t before, and they are fitting in,” Commins said. “The players have responded well. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve made huge strides.”
Ross opens the season Aug. 25 at Badin and is on the road for its first SWOC game Sept. 15 at Harrison. The Rams went 0-6 in conference play a year ago.