By Tyler Waldrep
There might not be a team in Alabama that enjoys halftime as much as John Carroll does.
That’s one of the few times John Carroll’s starters can catch their breath during a game. Offense, defense, it makes little difference to a team filled with two-way players.
“Last fall we played roughly 17 kids,” said Cavalier coach Tim Sanders. “Well everybody that we are playing is playing about 25 or 30.”
Last year that lack of depth caught up to the Cavs, who ended the season with a single win. Despite the adversity, Sanders remains positive. Sanders said lessons can be learned from every loss, but he admits he has learned his fill.
John Carroll’s roster is just as thin this year as it was last year, but Sanders has hope that this team can be better. A playoff berth for the Cavaliers seems impossible, but Sanders challenges his players to dream.
“If we never dream it, and we never believe it, then that will never come,” Sanders said.
Sander’s thinks he can right the ship eventually, and there is reason to believe he is right. No grade has more players on the team than the 10th grade does, and Sanders said that male enrollment is increasing in the middle school grades.
“That experience is going to pay dividends for us,” he said. “When you start talking about the foundation for the chance to get back to the playoffs … this bunch right here will really put some cement in.”
Playing guys both ways forces the coaching staff to be creative with rotations and play calls. Even with a thin roster, don’t expect Sanders to make excuses.
“It’s like I tell our kids,” he said. “Go put on your big boy britches.”
One position in which the Cavaliers have to be especially careful is running back. Sanders said the team will use a committee approach, with Michael Hankes, Alex Zimmerman and Demetrius Battles receiving a majority of the snaps. He said it’s important none of those three get too many snaps because they also have defensive assignments.
If the running backs are going to have success, then the offensive line will have to make some holes for them. Three starters are back on the offensive line – Peyton Harlow, Ethan Schultz and Michael McKenna. Sanders said their experience could make that the strength of the team.
“We are going to have to depend on two kids coming in and stepping up to the tempo,” Sanders said. “The ones that have the best chance of doing that are Gabe Wood (and) Michael Watts.”
Alex Mitchell and Miller Parker return as fullbacks/tight ends to help the line out, but John Carroll can’t run the ball every play.
“I’ve got a little (quarterback) battle going on between two sophomores, Dilan Sherrod and Bailey Mara,” he said. “At some point, one is going to have to step up.”
Sanders said both candidates have different strengths, and the winner will be the guy who best embodies the philosophy of living to play another down.
Regardless of the outcome, Sanders expects both guys to see plenty of snaps on offense.
The real question for the offense might be who the quarterback will throw to. Malcolm Russell is a returning starter, as is Mara should he lose the quarterback battle. Sanders said Conner Bader and Chris Burrell also will receive some looks at receiver, but John Carroll could use a few more guys.
Don’t expect Sanders to give those two-way players a breather by keeping them off special teams. Whether Will Wallace is kicking off or Lucas Strachan is walking out to punt, the Cavaliers need to provide good coverage.
Sanders said the strength of the defense might be the linebackers. Only one starter, Hankes, returns, but Sanders said he is confident that Battles, Mick Hagelskamp and Ranson Redman can also make plays at that position.
“It’s like a puzzle. If the front can’t keep them off, the linebackers aren’t going to make a ton of plays,” Sanders said. “If they do their part of the puzzle, then we have linebackers that can run and make some plays.”
Only one starter, Jeremy Jones, returns to the defensive line this year, but Sanders said he has not locked up the starting position yet. Other guys likely to start for the Cavaliers up front include Kenyada Williams, Cydrick Walker, Josh Thomas and Asad Muhammad. Sanders said he is confident those guys can get the job done.
Sanders said stopping the run will be important for John Carroll. If the front seven can do that, then the spotlight will shift to the secondary, where two starters, cornerback Strachan and safety Nick Bertani, return. Sanders said four other guys will be asked to rotate into the secondary to fill the other two spots.
Sanders seems to have confidence in his guys. Time will tell if that faith will be rewarded.
“Dare to dream and dare to believe,” Sanders said. ϖ