With a number of young players last season, Lima Senior endured a tough 2-8 season.
But Spartan head coach Andre Griffin is hoping this year’s squad remembers the hard knocks in 2018 and losses from last season and turns them into wins in 2019.
“We were young last year,” Griffin said. “We had six freshmen earn letters. We are still going to be young but a lot of new experiences. We knew going into last year it was going to be tough, and so it was no surprise.”
This year’s team returns 21 letter winners with seven starters back on offense and five back on defense.
Griffin said he was encouraged by the team’s final four games in which the Spartans offense began to emerge under quarterback E.J. Cameron. In the Spartans’ first six games, Lima Senior averaged 12.5 points a game. In the final four contests, the Spartans averaged 22.75 points.
“The record may not show it, but if you see the team at the end of the year compared to the team at the beginning of the year, we showed improvement,” Griffin said.
Griffin said during preseason and the offseason the players came in with a positive attitude, and more than 55 players showed up to work out and prepare for weight training. Then it continued into two-a-days.
With some quality starts under his belt, Cameron comes into the season poised to have a breakout year for the Spartans. He will be surrounded by a number of talented weapons but more importantly a stout offensive line, anchored by Penn State commit Brandon Taylor, who was a standout on the defensive line last season.
Also back on the offensive line is Three Rivers Athletic Conference selection Adrian Bowsher at center. Joining these two will be returning tackle Estephon Owens and Lamont Layson, a sophomore, who Griffin said has a lot of potential. The other guard spot is still being filled with a number of top candidates to replace Tank McClendon, who graduated.
“This year you can see the improvement as far as the development on the offense, and you can tell they have been in the system. I think we are going to be fine at that level as well,” Griffin said.
Griffin is confident in Cameron’s abilities and has introduced plays into the offense and feels they are ahead of the curve in terms of preparation.
In the final four games, Cameron was 77 of 113 for 865 yards and five touchdowns.
“He definitely has shown improvement, and you can see that he has played,” Griffin said. “I believe that what we did off the field and the things he did in the offseason helped him.”
In order to bolster the running game, Griffin said they are bringing back the tight end to the offensive line.
“We are excited about that because last year we didn’t use the tight end a lot,” Griffin said.
By bringing the tight end back into the fold, the Spartans will be looking to move the ball on the ground. There are a host of running backs for Cameron to hand the ball of to.
Juwan Anderson, who rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns in the Spartans’ win over Oregon Clay, returns to the backfield. Also returning is Mizhir McMillen, who saw action last season, and a host of other backs battling for playing time.
Griffin has gone back to helping coach the running backs.
“I think with my tutelage, we are going to be pretty good in that area,” Griffin said.
The receiving corps will be new. Gone are Jaleel King and Brayden O’Dell, so Griffin is looking to several young players to step up. Jermaine Daniels and Cecil Benton are the frontrunners for the starting jobs after both saw playing time last year.
“We have new guys that are basketball players that are very, very talented. They just need experience, but once they get that experience they will be fine,” Griffin said. “I think we are deeper, but we just don’t have the experience.”
Griffin said for this offense to be successful, the Spartans are going to have to avoid the obvious pitfalls of turnovers, penalties and staying out of long yardage situations on second and third downs.
“We did that a lot last year and getting behind and not staying untracked,” Griffin said. “If we stay on track and do those type of things, we will be fine on the offensive side the ball. We have to be able to finish, and you have to score and put touchdowns up.”
The defense, like the offense, improved.
Taylor highlights a defense that will be looking to improve on last year. The Spartan defense gave up an average of 39 points a game last year. In seven of those games, the opposition scored 40 or more points.
Taylor recorded 51.5 tackles and five sacks last year.
While Taylor deserves all the accolades, Griffin said another defensive end who often gets overlooked is senior Caymien Durr.
“That was his first year playing defensive end,” Griffin said. “He has had one of his best offseasons. He led the team in sacks, and a lot of people don’t know that.”
The linebacking crew will need revamping, and Griffin said there are a lot of capable candidates looking for a starting position.
“We don’t really know who is going to start right now, but I have six or seven guys that can play it, so that is a good thing,” Griffin said. “Like I said, we are going to be young there, but once they get playing time and how the summer was set, they are improving well and will be ready for the first week.”
Three-year starter Jermaine Daniels, who was injured at the end of last season, returns as one of the cornerbacks, and Isiah Foster will man the other cornerback spot.
Senior Shannon Allen is one of the starting safeties and a battle to claim the other safety position is still ongoing.
“We have a lot of defensive backs,” Griffin said. “We are very deep at that position, but like I keep saying we just need game experience, and they will be fine as well.”
Griffin said the key to the defense being successful begins upfront with three returners back on the line including Taylor and Durr.
“They are bigger, faster and stronger and will be pushing the offensive line back and free up some lanes for the linebackers to make some plays,” Griffin said. “We want to get some turnovers on the back end with some ball hawk guys at the corner and safety positions.”
Griffin is optimistic about this team’s competitiveness in 2019, and he said it is imperative the Spartans get off to a strong start and gain some momentum especially with the number of younger and inexperienced players getting their opportunity to shine.
“For Lima, it is winning early,” Griffin said. “If you can win early and get some momentum is what we want to do. The old saying is one game at a time, one play at a time and that is our goal.”