OBERLIN — Don’t look now, but Oberlin has confidence on its side going into the season.
The Phoenix started the 2017 season 1-5 under new coach Mike Akers, but Oberlin caught fire over the last month, winning the final four games — including a 34-20 victory over Columbia to close the year with a 5-5 mark.
Oberlin is hoping to accomplish a feat it hasn’t done in nine years this season — complete back-to-back non-losing seasons, something it hasn’t done since going 6-4 in 2008 and ’09.
The Phoenix believes it can pull that off and maybe even more.
“If you look at the first four weeks of the season (in 2017) and look at the last four weeks you could see that we were a completely different football team,” Phoenix lineman Alex Rucker said. “We did everything better and our overall confidence was much higher.”
After numerous coaching changes over the previous five years, Akers came in and began selling himself and his style of football to the Oberlin players.
It took some time, but the players started to believe and the winning results soon followed.
“We didn’t come out and get those wins at the beginning of the season against teams you think you should beat on your schedule,” Akers said. “All of the teams we beat at the end of the season we probably weren’t favored in any of those games.
“These kids have been through a lot of coaches and a lot of different systems, and it just took them some time to trust us and what we wanted to do on offense and defense. You could see the difference in what they were doing on the field.”
That Oberlin offense could be hard to handle again with seven returning starters, including three across the offensive line in Rucker, Jadon Turner and Riley Horning.
In all, the Phoenix only lost six seniors from last year’s team.
One player that will be hard to replace is quarterback Devan Yarber, who led the Phoenix with 1,542 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, which was third best in Lorain County, last year. Throw in another 622 passing yards and seven TDs, finding someone to fill those big shoes became a top priority for Akers during the preseason.
Luckily for Akers, Yarber had already selected his replacement. The graduated QB brought Azarie Hairston to Akers in the middle of last season and told Akers that Hairtson could replace him at quarterback when he was gone.
Hairtson is penciled in at QB and should have plenty of help on offense with running backs Devin Randleman and Ravon Eisom returning. Aaron Arnold and Sam Thompson are back at wide receiver, giving their new quarterback plenty of options.
“At the end of our four-game winning streak against Columbia, we knew we had that one at halftime,” Eisom said. “I think that game really flipped a switch for us and Akers really taught us a lot this year that is making us that much better.”
Like the offense, there are plenty of returning faces on defense and some additional athletes that came out to join the team this year.
One of those is 6-foot-2, 215-pound Aaron Hopkins, who only played against Columbia and will be an imposing force at outside linebacker and wide receiver.
“Those last four games meant everything to us as a team,” Hopkins said. “Coming into the season we didn’t think we were going to do that well, but we started believing in what Coach Akers was trying to teach us.
“We are coming into this year preparing for that Week 10 game again and we’re working hard to make sure that we are ready to go from the start of the year until we play Columbia again.”