As usual, sixth-year Baldwin-Wallace coach John Snell is looking at several battles for key positions as the Yellow Jackets get ready to open the season today at home against Augustana.
The headliner is quarterback, where the Yellow Jackets return two players who alternated a lot in 2006. Olmsted Falls graduate Mickey Mental and Anthony Gardner, a Rocky River resident and Lakewood St. Edward graduate, struggled with injuries and took turns under center.
Mental, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior, completed 119 of 191 passes (62.3 percent) for 1,444 yards and 12 touchdowns. Six of Mental’s passes were intercepted, and he had 103 rushing yards and another touchdown.
Gardner, a 5-11, 190-pound junior, saw action in seven games and completed 30 of 68 passes for 371 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
“This quarterback battle is a great thing for our program,” Snell said. “The answer to the question as to who will play will be answered by what the game dictates.”
Probably the biggest offensive hole to be filled is at running back. Brandon Hedges, a perennial All-Ohio Athletic Conference pick, graduated along with his 2,513 career rushing yards and 33 touchdowns.
Senior Nick Ranallo and sophomore Kyrell Crook return to the backfield. Senior Brendan McKay and freshman John McGraw, a North Ridgeville graduate and Golden Helmet winner, will join the battle for playing time.
“Our backfield definitely will have a different look for the next few years,” said Snell. “We need to find people to take over the reins. John McGraw is a good prospect and should help us immensely.”
Junior All-OAC pick Matt Lepley, Vinny Latessa and Mike Kowal once again are expected to be the receiving corps leaders. Lepley, a multipurpose player, led the Jackets with 39 catches for 352 yards and five touchdowns last season. He also did well returning punts and kickoffs and even saw some action on defense as a nickelback.
Senior Sam Rantucci, a two-year starter on the defensive line, has moved to the offensive line. Several others will battle for positions there, led by center John DiMattio and senior guard Matt Scarl.
Two fifth-year seniors, tackle Matt Leber and end Jeremiah Chronister, are expected to be mainstays defensively.
“Matt and Jeremiah bring continuity to our program,” said Snell. “They are a great influence on our younger players.”
Junior All-OAC tackle Joe Kowalski, middle linebacker Paul Burger and senior tackle Matt Leber, along with several others, bring a great deal of depth to the defense.
Amherst graduate Jake Knipp returns to the strong safety position. Knipp was injured in last year’s opener and missed the remainder of the season. He has 107 tackles during his career.
Special teams are an area where the Yellow Jackets are blessed. Midpark graduate Kevin Soflkiancs is back after being the OAC’s leading punter for the third straight season. His 42.6-yard average for 44 kicks also led Division III for the second time.
Senior kicker Adam Wilburn also returns after making 23 of 25 extra points and nine of 16 field goals.
“Kevin and Adam obviously are two outstanding kickers,” said Snell. “They take their efforts to a higher level. Their efforts are very instrumental to the success of our program.”
The OAC’s coaches chose the Jackets to finish fifth. Thirty-six members of the media picked them fourth.
“I’m not surprised by those polls,” said Snell. “Our players understand that they have little significance on what happens in the race for the OAC championship.”
Contact Jerry Henson at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.