When you lose a three-year starter at quarterback, your leading rusher and arguably the best defender in the Northeast 8, most coaches would be apprehensive the following season.
But this is Leo, which hasn’t had a losing campaign since 2006. Regression is not an option.
Coach Jared Sauder admits his team is young in some areas and inexperienced in a lot of areas, but feels he has the group that can once again contend for NE8 glory.
The story of the 2019 Lions begins at quarterback, where a pair of players are still battling it out to replace A.J. Restivo. Senior Cameron Roach was the backup to Restivo last year after transferring from Northrop. He is trying to hold off an upstart sophomore at the position in Jackson Barbour.
“We haven’t made a decision yet on who we are going to go with,” said Sauder, whose team went 7-4 in 2018. “We may end up having them split time. Cameron throws the better long ball while Jackson is very athletic.”
Whoever wins the job will be handing off (and throwing to) one of the best two-way players in the area. Peyton Wall rushed for 600 yards and 11 TDs last year while also accumulating 445 yards receiving. He ascends to the top running back spot with the graduation of First Team All-NE8 selection Alex Wertman.
“I don’t think there is any question that the offense, particularly early, will run through (Wall),” said Sauder of the senior. “We could move him around a bit and maybe even do a little Wildcat.”
At receiver, Peyton McHale led the Lions with 34 receptions last year. He will be joined by 6-foot-3 senior Cameron Livingston, who missed most of last season after being injured in Week 2. Sophomore Rylan Crawford is also a rising underclassman to watch at the position.
Up front, Leo brings back three of its starting linemen, including senior Tom Busch, who was First Team All-NE8. Sophomore Landon Livingston at 6-5, 260 pounds could be an anchor of the line for multiple years.
Defensively, it will be nearly impossible to replace the production of a disruptive defensive front led by Jayden Elwood, with oft-underappreciated Gavin Hieber also gone from his d-end spot. Sauder hopes that some upperclassmen who have specialized only on the offensive line can acclimate to the defensive line.
The second and third levels of the defense will be strong, with Wall moving from linebacker to safety. GT Baker is back in the middle of the defense at linebacker to lead that personnel group after amassing 46 tackles as a junior. Michael O’Brien is a junior who can play a hybrid OLB/DE, while senior Gavin James is also back at OLB.
While there are a lot of new faces and names, Leo does have a strong, 18-man senior class. Inserting youth and inexperience into the lineup is much more difficult without a sizable senior group that uses leadership to push the program through some growing pains.
Last year, a pair of single-digit losses to New Haven and East Noble in weeks 4 and 5 derailed the chances of an NE8 title. Will this year’s squad be ready for those mid-season challenges?
That is the big hurdle for the Lions.
“Can we develop our guys on the lines, particularly on defense?” said Sauder. “Between that and finding balance offensively, we know what we need to do in order to have a successful season.”
The Lions have won six or more games for 12 consecutive seasons. Coach Jared Sauder has won 74 percent of his games over 13 years with the program, and the team is showing no signs of slowing down.
Winning the Northeast 8 may be a bit of a stretch with inexperience in key spots, but Leo will be in the conversation for most of the season.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
Anytime your biggest question marks are at quarterback and along the lines, there is cause for concern. Offensive line should be solid with some returnees there, but defensive line was hit hard by graduation.
Coach Sauder feels he has the guys who can step up and perform on Friday nights. Until we see it, we will remain cautiously optimistic.
Week 4 vs. New Haven
Leo had the Bulldogs on the ropes last year, but surrendered a touchdown in the final minutes in a 24-21 road loss. It was the Lions’ first NE8 loss, followed one week later by another against East Noble.
Those two weeks quickly put an end to any shot of a league title. If Leo is to avoid similar setbacks in 2019, it must find a way to knock off New Haven at home in Week 4.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Cameron Livingston, senior, wide receiver
After starting at wideout and corner as a sophomore, Livingston was shaping up to be one of the area’s breakout players in 2018. But in Week 2 against Angola, the junior suffered a broken collarbone, ending his season early.
Livingston is back and healthy for his final prep campaign. After a summer in which he earned looks from the likes of Saint Francis and Indiana State, the 6-3, 195 pounder is poised to have a big impact for the Lions.