Photo by Brian Paglia
Luella senior defensive end Jawann Johnson rushes the quarterback during a recent practice.
Luella at a glance
Last year: 4-6
Summer progress: Luella needed to get eight new starters on offense and five on defense up to speed since many are experiencing varsity competition for the first time. Wide receiver and secondary were particular areas of concern, but Coach Nic Vasilchek said they turned into two of the team’s biggest strengths.
Work to do: The offensive line is a work in progress and its improvement has been stunted by injuries. But that’s forced Luella to give younger players some experience, which should help with depth.
Emerging player: Despite all the turmoil on the offensive line, Vasilchek called junior right guard Keith Jones “the biggest surprise” between spring practice and now.
As Luella football approached spring practice in May, it was time for coach Nic Vasilchek and his staff to take an eraser to the depth chart and say good-bye to last year’s seniors.
It wasn’t a pretty sight.
“We were like, ‘My God, we have a lot of holes to fill from a team that didn’t make the playoffs,’” Vasilchek said.
But as Luella finished spring practice, Vasilchek discovered that two years worth of a new practice philosophy had built a team with more varsity-ready talent than it’s experience belied.
ROAD TO KICKOFF
The Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald are counting down the days until our high school football special section comes out on August 24 by taking a look at 21 area high school football teams.
As the Lions break in eight new starters on offense and five on defense largely from a group without varsity experience, Vasilchek said he’s not as concerned about their transition as he was when this team began forming in the spring.
“It was almost like some of our hair grew back,” Vasilchek said. “They were pretty good, they were just behind some really good football players.”
Their readiness is a product of the practice structure Vasilchek instituted when he became head coach in 2010.
Vasilchek said under previous coach Paul Burgdorf, who is now at Union Grove, the Lions often practiced in “islands” with the team divided according to varsity, junior varsity and freshmen.
Vasilchek brought the groups together and turned it into one big practice. He wanted to give younger players the challenge of competing against older, more experienced players.
“I’m hoping the learning curve of getting beat up or beat deep for two years has sped up the process of being varsity ready,” Vasilchek said.
The players feel ready.
“You get to get beat a lot,” said senior defensive end Jawann Johnson, who will be a first-year varsity starter. “When you get beat a lot you see where you need to work and improve.”
Johnson and Luella’s defense doesn’t seem to have as sharp a learning curve as its offense, though it does have a lot of talent to replace. Gone is all-state cornerback Alvin Hill, who is now at Maryland. Gone is two first team all-Region 2-AAAAA selections in linebacker Holden Keith and defensive tackle Delano Brown.
But Luella still feels its has the talent to have a strong defense, which is switching to a 3-4 formation under new defensive coordinator Matt Hurd.
Defensive end Tevin Jones is a four-year starter who has scholarship offers from Central Florida, Connecticut, Florida International, Georgia State and Jacksonville State. Nose guard Xavier Merrill broke the program’s record with a 500-pound squat this summer. Johnson has gotten good reviews for his performance during spring and this fall.
“We want to bring as many sacks as possible,” Johnson said, “as many hurries as possible and as many stops in the backfield as possible.”
The linebacker corps is loaded with athletes, led by junior Steve Osondu and seniors Mannie Lowery and Gabe Smith. Vasilchek said sophomore Kenny Gibbs, who is “real tough,” should make a big impact.
The secondary, historically Luella’s most talent-rich position, should be strong again with seniors Amodre Bolden, Chris Colvard, Shakim Thompson and Keegan Walker.
“All those guys have the ability to stand out,” Hurd said. “That’s pretty much an all-star cast back there. They’re all seniors. They’re very athletic. Given the track and field history here ... we’ve got some speed.”