Last fall, when perhaps the most experienced group of Newark Yellowjackets in Butch Simpson’s 36-year tenure was merrily rolling along through an undefeated regular season, the coach was quietly preparing for the next season.
Next season has arrived, and it’s time to see if Simpson’s advance work will pay off.
“We practiced the pistol offense all last year. We ran it in the JV games,” Simpson said Thursday. “… We were actually preparing a year ahead. We were practicing what we thought would be our offense this year.”
Dynamic quarterback Taylor Reynolds operated the spread offense with incredible efficiency last year as Newark went 10-0 in the regular season, dusted Salesianum in the Division I playoff semifinals and led Middletown 16-0 before falling 27-23 in the state championship game.
But Reynolds – and just about everybody else off of that team – has graduated. The Yellowjackets have only two returning starters: center Corey Donovan and two-way tackle Dutch VanDerhout.
“What Taylor did was special to Taylor,” Simpson said. “His skills, running and throwing, were at a higher level. That’s why he’s playing I-AA football [at James Madison] now. We’re going to be much more balanced, probably even more run-oriented this year.”
Junior Keith Stubbs will operate the pistol, which places the quarterback closer to the line of scrimmage than the shotgun but still not under center. Newark will downshift from four wideouts to two and go from one running back to three. Senior Josh Patterson and juniors Austin Lockett and Eric Wright are the front-runners for those spots.
“The first thing you do is decide who can play,” Simpson said.
“Then you work to try to get them into the right position. Then you teach them how to play and you motivate them to be the best player they can be. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Yellowjackets faced a similar scenario three years ago, when they had just nine seniors.
Only three of those were starters, and Newark took its lumps in an uncharacteristic 2-8 season. Simpson hopes to avoid a free fall like that this time around.
“This year, we have about 15 [seniors], but more of those guys are going to be on the field,” the coach said. “But I would still say more than half of our starters are going to be sophomores and juniors.
“That’s the life of a high school coach. You get what you have, and you try to make it work. You try to fit a system to them, play off their strengths and hide their weaknesses.”
VanDerhout, a junior, doesn’t have many weaknesses, having blossomed from 6-foot-1, 227 pounds last season to 6-3, 275 this year. Senior receiver/defensive back Day’Quan Wallace, senior safety Isiah Jackson, senior offensive lineman George Davis and two newcomers – senior linebacker-fullback Terry Brown and sophomore two-way lineman Andrew Thomas – also show promise.
And looking further down the road, Newark has an overflowing freshman class of 45 players.
“I love preseason because it’s all coaching,” Simpson said. “It’s feeling that rush of a kid just being far better than he was last year. That’s my enjoyment, to watch a player grow into himself. To see seniors on the field who you never thought would be on the field two years ago – there’s no greater reward than that.”