Conventional wisdom will have most pundits naming one of two teams at the top of the area to begin the season – Snider or Bishop Dwenger.
Outside the Huddle believes both of those programs are solid choices. But we here at OTH like to think outside the box at times and create a little conversation.
Our top team to start the 2019 campaign? The Homestead Spartans.
Two years ago, the Spartans dropped just a single game in the league, a 52-31 defeat at the hands of Snider. Of course, Homestead was torched 37-0 in sectional play by those same Panthers.
Last year, Homestead hit a mid-season swoon with three straight losses, but gave Snider a competitive game in the playoffs in a 49-35 defeat.
With a veteran quarterback, tremendous skill on offense and some playmakers on D, could this be the year for the Spartans in the SAC? If so, what is they key?
“Consistency,” Homestead coach Chad Zolman said. “We had the lead in the second half in three of our four losses last year. We didn’t finish well and we addressed that in the off-season.”
There will be consistency at the quarterback spot this year with just one player behind center – junior Luke Goode. Last year, Goode split time all year with Jake Archbold. It worked reasonably well, but this year the Spartans will have one steady presence at signal caller with Archbold available to make plays all over the field.
Offensively, Archbold will line up in the slot and at times in the backfield. He will also be a defensive leader in the secondary and be the primary return man on special teams.
“He is going to be all over,” Zolman said. “If he gets any rest, it will be on the offensive side.”
Junior Braeden Hardwick is back after running for 838 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore last season. He will be spelled in the backfield by Archbold and Ryan Burton, who was a standout sophomore on defense in 2018.
Griffin Little is eager to return to the field for his senior season after an off-season injury. He notched 926 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns last year. He will have plenty of help, with Archbold in the slot as well as senior Sam Scavo and junior Ethan Chambers.
Offensive line is in a bit of transition with some younger guys being elevated to starters. The two positions that have been solidified are senior Robert McCrory at center and junior Brady Parker, who can line up at both guard and tackle.
“We have some kids that battled through the scrimmage to try and win a spot,” Zolman said.
Defensively, Homestead is switching to more of a stack defense due to its strength in both numbers and talent at linebacker and in the secondary. Cam Rogers (99 tackles, 14 TFL, 7 sacks) will be the leader in the middle of the defense, directing the unit while being a prime candidate for 120-plus tackles on the year. Nik Martin at outside linebacker was an oft-overlooked stud for Homestead last year as a junior with 59 tackles and 10 TFL. Luke Palmer will man the middle linebacker position.
The secondary is full of familiar names with Archbold, Burton and Cole Etchison. Zolman is confident in his safeties’ ability to roll up into the box at times to play the run.
Senior Donnovan Leonard was named by Zolman as having a phenomenal offseason at corner and could emerge as one of the top pass defenders in the SAC.
The defensive line is still in flux, with many new faces. However, Zolman is confident that at the very least, the guys up front will be able to fill holes and take on double teams, freeing up Rogers, Martin and others to make plays from their linebacker spots.
The pieces are there for Homestead to challenge for its first-ever SAC title. Last year showed there was a sizable gap between the Spartans and Snider in their two matchups. While the Panthers are reloading (as they always do), Homestead may have the guys with a touch of swagger (Goode, Archbold, Rogers) that could propel the team in closing the distance between the two.
With as established of an offense in terms of proven skill position players as anyone in the SAC, Homestead has the looks of a team that could put up some big numbers on the scoreboard.
The fact that the Spartans’ defensive strength lies in its secondary and linebackers should bode well, particularly if a young defensive front can help bottle up the run game and free up the secondary to play aggressive and tight in coverage.
A lot of things need to go right with the offensive and defensive lines for the Spartans to be tops in the SAC, but Zolman has the bodies, he just needs to find who fits the best.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
Cannot be higher than No. 1 folks.
Week 5 vs. Snider
Duh. The perennial standard in the SAC is Snider. When teams aim to ascend towards the top of the conference, every coach points to the Panthers as they team their program must beat in order to “prove” to themselves and to outsiders that they are indeed legit.
Homestead has lost nine straight to Snider, with the last win coming in sectional play in 2006.
Beat Snider, you can win the SAC.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Ryan Burton, junior, safety/running back
Burton finished with 65 tackles and a pair of interceptions as a sophomore safety a year ago, looking wise beyond his years at the back end of the Homestead defense.
Now a year older, Burton is being given more of a two-way role as one of those who will spell Hardwick at running back when he needs it.
Look for Burton to take command of the secondary in the mold of a Matt Anderson, who was slightly taller but not as built as Burton is during his career with Homestead.