YORKTOWN – When a team loses an athlete the caliber of a Chandler Carroll, it takes more than a few people to step into the place he occupied. The compact, 5-foot-7, 170-pound nugget of force and muscle was everything but the very heartbeat of Yorktown’s football team in 2013, carrying a big role in every phase.
One of the people filling that void is obvious. Riley Neal couldn’t be more physically different (6-foot-5, 200 pounds), but the strong-armed passer, coming off his own prolific season, becomes the unquestioned centerpiece of the Tiger attack. But who takes over Carroll’s spot in the lineup? That’s still up in the air.
“We have to replace a lot of offense with Chandler graduating last year,” said Yorktown coach Mike Wilhelm, calling Neal the rock of the offense. “The guys stepping into that position, we’re not asking them to be Chandler Carroll, we’re asking them to run our offense.”
Going through the preseason, the Tigers rolled out three players at the tailback spot. That in itself becomes a departure from the norm, as Peyton Stites, Dawson Allen and Jacob Stephenson could all have different jobs sharing the load.
In recent seasons, the Tigers have been extremely reliant on a single back. The 2011 team’s starter had 103 more carries than the next back. That number jumped to 209 in 2012 and 261 last season. Those top backs, Carroll and Brendon Barnes, also happened to be some of the best football players in the region.
But this new-look backfield provides a different array of styles. Stites is a thick and a powerfully-built bruiser at 192 pounds. Stephenson is more in the smaller-back mold at 145 pounds and played a little wide receiver. Allen rests somewhere in between, but is also the youngest of the trio, only a sophomore.
“Really no one can fill in a spot like that,” Stephenson said. “We’re not trying to be Chandler Carroll, we’re trying to be whoever we are. We’re trying to be Dawson Allen, we’re trying to be Jacob Stephenson.”
Wilhelm says how things shake out will actually rest primarily on defense. Stites plays linebacker, while the other two are in the secondary, and the coach called all of them prominent players. Their roles will be defined by situation, but also what best allows them to play actively on the other side of the ball.
Outside Carroll, the Tigers, who went 10-2 last season, also lost a couple key receivers and big chunks of the offensive line. The players still have the sense the cupboards remain well-stocked and the show is now fully in the hands of Neal, a Ball State commit and third-year starter.
And it’s not something he shies away from.
“Chandler was a very vocal guy, he obviously led by his actions too,” Neal said. “But I’m not the only guy who’s trying to step up leading the team.”
Allen said Neal is always a resource for young players in the scheme. Wilhelm described Neal as the sort who would carry 100 percent of the load if given the chance. But Yorktown plans to stay at a 50-50 balance between run and pass, a ratio that’s characterized the Tigers in recent seasons.
To do that, they’ll need the trio of backs and the line to fall into place. And in doing that, the shadow of a 5-foot-7, 170-pound sparkplug is kept well out of mind.
“Chandler’s obviously big shoes to fill, but for like the most part, we all have been in the system long enough,” Stites said. “We’ve played football long enough, we’ve developed over time. We know what we’re doing.
“He’s done big things, and I just feel like if we just step up and play our part, we can do the same.”
Contact sports writer Ben Breiner at 213-5848. Follow him on Twitter @BenBreinerTSP.
Yorktown debuted in the preseason Associated Press state football poll as the No. 7 team in Class 3A. Delta received the most points for a team outside the top 10 and checked in at No. 11.