Trojans’ defense is young, but talentedBy: Matt Long, Sports Editor
With only three starters returning on defense, clearly it’s a rebuilding year on that side of the ball for the Trojans.
Oak Ridge returns senior Sam Sanders at linebacker, who had a great year last year with 98 tackles (second on the team) four interceptions, and two fumble recoveries.
“Sam is really good at learning and studying and he plays the way he’s coached,” Oak Ridge coach Eric Cavaliere said. “Coach Darren Jonutz is a detail-oriented coach and Sam can implement his schemes. He’s got a knack for the ball. He has his hands on it a lot and that’s great news for us.”
Joining Sanders as returning starters from last year are cornerbacks Sawyer Merrill and Avant Jacobs, who represent the strength of the defense. The two combined to make four interceptions and defend 17 passes a year ago.
“There weren’t many better cornerbacks in the SFL than Avant and Sawyer last year,” Cavaliere said. “They really executed. They’re confident-inspiring and having two guys who can cover changes what you can do. There are plenty of ways to get them help, but it’s nice that we don’t have to.”
Everyone else in the lineup will be first-year starters, but the Trojans feel they have plenty of talented players. Lining up next to Sanders at inside linebacker will either be Evan Robinson or Connor Harlan. Robinson was the quarterback of the junior varsity team a year ago, and is playing linebacker for the first time this year. Backing up Sanders is Jake Dyer.
“Evan is big and strong and his best asset is his coachability,” Cavaliere said. “He’s smart and just absorbs things. Connor strengths are his instincts, speed and physicality.”
Outside linebackers include starters Nick Mountain and Justin Lamson. Fighting them for jobs are Hunter Nabers and James Lujan, respectively.
“Because of vacated positions, there is lots of competition all over the defense for positions,” Cavaliere said. “Nick is a physical player and almost a carbon copy of Ryan Brown, who played there last year. Justin is talented and athletic. He’s big, strong, physical, and intense. We’re excited to have him for the next three years.”
Joining Merrill and Jacobs in the secondary is their backup, Mujahid Samad, and starting free safety EJ Delwiche. Vinnie Mini is battling Delwiche for playing time.
“EJ has a good nose for the football, he’s physical, and does a great job at free safety,” Cavaliere said.
What Oak Ridge lacks in size up front, they make up with athleticism and numbers. Several players are in the rotation behind starting ends Gage King and Nathan Addleman and tackles Jacob Crannell and Anthony Whiting. Zach Welch, Christian Ross, Mason Walsh, Daniel Kelly and Cole Hathaway should also see playing time.
“We have an active, athletic group up front,” Cavaliere said. “I don’t think we’re going to mow anyone over with our size, but I like how this group runs to the ball. Anytime you have athletes at these positions, it’s very exciting.”
Overall, it’s a young bunch on defense, but Cavaliere is excited to see how they play together.
“A critical component is our coaching staff with Darren Jonutz, Kevin Placek and Mark Rubalcaba,” Cavaliere said. “Mark has joined us from Whitney, and we’ve learned some things from him that will help us this year. Darren does a great job of putting plans into place. We had a lot of question marks heading into last year, and our defense ended up playing really well. We have even more question marks coming into this season, but we already seem further along than I thought we’d be. The kids have really stepped up, and our staff does a great job preparing them.”