Kenton Ridge coach Joel Marratta is counting on a sophomore at quarterback and has to find replacements for his top four rushers and leading receiver from a year ago.
While all coaches deal with graduation losses, the number of neophytes in key roles this season may be an all-time high for Marratta during his 15-year run. But he sees plenty of promise from his newcomers and expects them to produce, even if they are only a year or two removed from middle-school competition.
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“They’ve accepted the challenge,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young kids that don’t have a lot of Friday night experience. They’re going to have to put their big-boy pants on and grow up quicker than we’re used to around here.”
One reason for optimism is that the program is on firm foundation. The Cougars have a robust 52 players, and there’s a winning culture in place. Before going 5-5 last year, they made three straight playoff trips and won a pair of postseason games.
Much will depend, though, on the development of QB Dylan Lemen, who made a handful of appearances as a freshman last year and completed 17-of-36 passes for 199 yards with one TD and three interceptions. He also rushed eight times for 68 yards.
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“You’re going to have growing pains with a young quarterback. He needs to stay the course and trust his protection and get his eyes downfield,” Marratta said. “He’s a great runner. We’re really good when he takes off and gets loose. But we need to throw the ball well to set up the defense.”
The 5-foot-8, 150-pound speedster has been embraced by teammates because of his unassuming nature.
“He’s not old enough to be the face of the program, and he knows that. He hasn’t proven anything yet,” Marratta said.
“He’s very coachable. That’s the biggest thing. There’s not enough maturity or experience, but he’s receptive to constructive criticism.”
Zach Schneider, one of 15 seniors on the team, will play slot receiver, defensive back and kick returner. And the Cougars return a pair of second-team All-Central Buckeye Conference picks on the line with seniors Andrew Townsend and Jordan Milledge, though Milledge will miss the first part of the season because of a knee injury.
Calvin Dibert, a 6-2, 200-pound sophomore, is the top receiver and has the size and speed to be a weapon. Senior Chris Bell will split time at running back with sophomore Carson Jones.
“Chris has probably got the better hands of the two,” Marratta said. “Carson is a state qualifier in track. He’s just flat-out fast. He brings that game-breaking speed to the table where, if he gets loose, you’re probably not going to catch him.”
Another sophomore playmaker will be Kaelen Lemen, the QB’s cousin.
“He’s going to be our utility player. He’s the back-up quarterback. He’ll play the slot position, outside linebacker — he’s just one of those kids who we just didn’t expect to grow up as quickly as he did. We’ll play him where we need him,” Marratta said.
Anchoring the defense will be junior outside linebacker Brandon Collins, a special-mention all-league pick last year, and senior inside linebacker Drew Wichael.
The Cougars had six straight winning seasons from 2010-15, and Marratta wants the same attitude his players had through much of that stretch — especially the Jayden Davis-led 2014 team that went 9-2 and won a CBC division title.
“That was a special senior class,” he said. “That group was very selfless. They didn’t care who got the glory. The only thing they wanted to do was just win with each other. It makes a huge difference when you’re not battling who gets the ink. We had a lot of players who accepted their roles.
“That was one of my favorite teams because of how they carried themselves.”
He’s seen signs of strong leadership this year, although he cautions the real test will come when the season starts Aug. 25 at rival Northeastern.
Schneider believes Marratta has no reason for concern. No one wants another unsatisfying 5-5 season.
“That’s not what KR football expectations have been raised to,” he said. “We’ve been part of a good football team and a pretty mediocre football team. We know how the good teams were and how they practiced, and we’re trying to get to that.
“It’s been good. The intensity and atmosphere are getting back to where they were a couple years ago.”
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