It’s been a trying two seasons for Talawanda High School’s football team, but sixth-year coach J.D. Vonderheide is confident that brighter days are looming.
He sees a strong sophomore class as the foundation of a turnaround for the Braves, who were 0-10 in 2015 and 2-8 in 2016.
“I think our inexperience will be a positive for us … with the kind of youth that we have on this team, they don’t know what they don’t know,” Vonderheide said. “They’ve won a lot of football games, so they don’t know anything other than winning.
“The spark will ignite with this group. I truly believe that. When it ignites, I don’t know. But when it does ignite for us, I think it’s going to be very positive.”
The young talent will only take Talawanda so far, according to Vonderheide.
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“The motto this year was, ‘Put the T back in Talawanda.’ The very first thing we needed to do was become a tougher football team,” he said. “We’ve tried to put them in really stressful situations because we’re trying to get them physically and mentally tough. You re-evaluate things after five years, and we have not been a very tough football team.”
Among the highly regarded sophomores is Adam Crank (5-11, 165), who is taking over at quarterback.
“Going from playing on Saturdays to playing on Fridays is a huge jump for a quarterback, but he’s done a nice job so far,” Vonderheide said. “He’s an ultra-competitive kid, a good thrower with a good arm and a good athlete with the ball in his hands. He’s very versatile. He can tote the rock, and he throws efficiently.”
Sophomore Terrell Wills (6-3, 220) is a returnee who heads a receiving corps that includes senior Lucas Snell (5-10, 180), sophomores Tyler Engelhard (5-10, 155) and Kyle Campbell (6-0, 180), and senior John Croucher (5-10, 165).
The Braves figure to remain a run-first spread team, and senior Blake Bryan (5-9, 165) and junior Tyler Prater (5-10, 155) are back to carry the load. Senior Emmett Williams (5-9, 165) will also contribute.
“We want to keep them fresh, see who’s got the hot hand,” Vonderheide said. “I think Blake and Tyler have really elevated from last year.”
Senior Tim Roberts (6-0, 185) and junior Trent Rumpler (5-10, 200) are returnees who will man the guard positions on the offensive line.
Starting tackles are expected to be junior Tyler Short (6-0, 210) and senior Alex Cieslak (6-3, 230), with junior Andrew Marcum (6-1, 290) at center. Vonderheide, Talawanda’s offensive coordinator, calls Short “one of the most technically sound offensive linemen I’ve ever coached.”
Brand’n Byrd has been promoted to the defensive coordinator position. Asked what kind of defense the Braves will use, Vonderheide replied, “A run-and-hit defense.”
Returning to the defense are junior Topher Richardson (6-2, 230) at end, Marcum at tackle, senior Caleb Owens (5-7, 145) at outside linebacker, Snell and sophomore Dalton Norris (6-2, 180) at inside linebacker, and Prater and Bryan at cornerback.
Junior tackle Zach Smith (5-10, 220) and sophomore end Nathan Fox (6-1, 210) are slated to start, and sophomores Dylan Hainline (5-10, 250) and John Vega (5-10, 250) are in the D-line mix.
Sophomore Quinten Rikas (5-10, 165) is the rover, sophomore Luke Richardson (5-11, 165) is the free safety, and Croucher, junior Dylan Betz (5-9, 150) and junior Luke Saurber (5-9, 160) are working at cornerback.
“We’re going to try going up-tempo and run as many plays on offense as we can, and we need a defense to match that,” Vonderheide said. “We need to be more aggressive than we have been.”
Engelhard is slated to be the Braves’ place-kicker. Sophomore Evan Keebler (6-0, 170) is the punter.
“I am very pleased with the amount of skill that we have,” Vonderheide said. “A lot of those kids are sophomores, but we’ve got four or five or six kids that are good with the ball in their hands. I think we’ll play with a lot of energy and fly around.
“The majority of our numbers are in the lower grades. Our juniors and seniors have done a tremendous job of teaching them the ropes, and then the sophomores have really pushed those guys. It’s been a very inspiring offseason for me as a coach.”
He has added two new coaches in Sawyer Johnson (outside linebackers) and Collin Wallace (running backs).
Talawanda’s three scrimmages will be Tuesday at home against Northridge (5 p.m.), Saturday at Oak Hills (10 a.m.) and Aug. 18 at Roger Bacon (7 p.m.).