An eight-win campaign last year that was the most for a DeKalb program since 2002 did not surprise many people within, but it sure caught some off guard outside of Baron Country.
Rest assured that it won’t be a shock if DeKalb is able to repeat the 8-3 campaign, despite losing some key pieces and its head coach.
In January, Coach Pete Kempf stepped down after leading DeKalb for six seasons to spend more time with his growing family. In steps Seth Wilcox, who served as Kempf’s defensive coordinator over the last three seasons.
Familiarity is key, particularly with the abbreviated spring and summer, giving the Barons a degree of comfort with Wilcox. But there are still questions.
For starters, quarterback Evan Eshbach, running back Landon Miller and wide receiver Easton Rhodes have all graduated. Each of them led their respective positions in both production and leadership. Factor in the loss of mammoth offensive linemen Tylar Pomeroy and Hoyt Stafford and there is concern on that side of the ball.
However, senior Corey Price returns to the starting QB role in place of Eshbach and has familiarity there having played significantly as a sophomore. Price will have senior Tanner Jack as the primary back, who rushed for over 800 yards a season ago.
The wide receiver spot returns seniors Kai Zacharias and Blake Lude, as well as new faces Gaven Hopkins and junior Nate Williams. Fellow senior Evan Snider gives a big target at tight end as well.
“This senior class has been a special class,” said Wilcox. “They might have lost one game in middle school and we have seen them have success all through high school. They are definitely ready to prove we aren’t stepping back this year.”
While the offense has production to replace, the defense may be more concerning. Miller was the leader in the middle of the unit, but perhaps the most difficult player lost to graduation was Jase Griffith, who at defensive end was able to disrupt plays in the backfield with consistency.
“We lost some numbers on defense, and so far we feel we have found some guys to fill those holes,” Wilcox said. “Offensively, we have weapons everywhere on offense.”
One of those defenders that will be counted on greatly is middle linebacker Dom Blevins, who ascends to the leadership spot vacated by Miller.
Meanwhile, the secondary was largely inexperienced in 2019, evidenced by some struggles against vertical offenses and just a pair of INTs all season from the defense. The back end should be better in 2020 with experience gained. Keep an eye on senior Tanner Huff, who can play multiple secondary positions.
A point of emphasis in preseason practice has been more disruptive plays and turnovers out of the DeKalb defense. While the Barons won eight games, they did allow 21.9 points per game.
“We want to cause havoc and get the ball loose on defense,” Wilcox said. “So far, we are doing a really good job. Our first team defense has been attacking the offense well.”
The last time DeKalb notched back-to-back winning seasons was way back in 2001-02. While there will still be a bit of a learning curve with a new coach, the Barons have the potential to be a factor in the NE8 and finish above .500 once again.
The strength of last season and enough productive players returning has OTH believing in DeKalb, that it has staying power in the upper half of the NE8.
Coach Kempf completely revitalized Baron football, giving it a boost it desperately needed in a community starving for gridiron success.
With Kempf gone, Coach Wilcox will carry on many of the principles instilled in the team. With a large and successful senior class leading the way, the Barons should flirt with that eight-win mark again.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
The summit of the NE8 mountain is still the home of East Noble and Leo, with New Haven attempting to climb its way back.
The second tier of the league is where DeKalb can continue to own, even with a depleted roster with the likes of Landon Miller, Tylar Pomeroy and Jase Griffith gone.
But expectations have changed at DeKalb. Consistency is the name of the game. The Barons are hopeful to remain a consistent tough challenger in the NE8. But the non-conference is tough with games against Angola and Garrett, both teams expected to be better than last year. Add in early dates with East Noble and New Haven and the schedule is frontloaded.
Can DeKalb win seven of its first eight games like it did in 2019? That may be the key to another impressive campaign.
Week 3 vs. New Haven
DeKalb truly got our attention last year when in Week 3 it went to New Haven and won by 15 points.
This season, the Bulldogs are much improved and the Barons are attempting to prove that 2019 wasn’t a fluke. A big step towards proving that will be at home in Week 3 against New Haven.
If a defense still trying to identify playmakers can limit dangerous QB Jakar Williams and his weaponry and pick up a home victory, it will put the area on notice that DeKalb isn’t going away.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Corey Price, quarterback, senior
All indications were that Price was going to be the quarterback in 2019, well, until Evan Eshbach arrived from Wawasee.
Eshbach filled the starting QB role for the Barons, throwing for over 1,000 yards and rushing for nearly 300 more. Meanwhile, Price transitioned to wide receiver and saw spot action on defense.
But now, Price is back behind center. He will have some weapons on the outside and an experienced running back in Tanner Jack behind him. If the offensive line can jell and give Price time and space to operate, he should finally be able to show off his skills.