If you want to truly understand the potential of Leo entering 2020, simply examine the two games against East Noble a year ago.
In Week 5, the Bailey Parker and the Knights torched the Lions’ defense in a 35-7 East Noble victory.
Seven weeks later, Leo put a scare into the eventual Class 4A state runner-up as the Lions fell by a tight 14-7 decision.
The difference? A defense that at times had seven sophomores on the field finding its maturity over the course of the season.
Now, those sophomores are juniors and are hungry to close the gap with East Noble atop the NE8.
“We obviously lost some big kids and big players, but we have a lot back too,” Leo coach Jared Sauder said.
Division I prospect Landen Livingston is back and bigger than ever. He will fill line spots on both offense and defense. He will be joined by DJ Allen on the edge of the defensive front. When Mason Sheron returns from injury at some point this year, Leo will have three of its four d-linemen in its 4-3 set back.
At linebacker, the trio of Michael O’Brien, Dallen Wirtz and Tanner Jackson are all back, with plenty of familiar faces in the secondary also returning – including Kaeden Miller, Damien Gudakunst and Rylan Crawford.
Crawford in particular is a player to watch. A junior at 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, he could be the breakout player for Leo, particularly as a ranging wide receiver who is deceptively quick and showcases such in single coverage.
Junior Jackson Barbour returns to the quarterback spot after a sophomore year that saw him make some plays but also show his youth. He threw for 858 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019, but also threw six INTs.
“Jackson’s improvement has been great, and we see him as more of a dual threat this year,” Sauder said. “We are a heavy run team, so last year we didn’t throw a lot, but when we needed to do that Jackson did well.”
Leo will have to replace the sensational Payton Wall, particularly in the run game that is so paramount in the Lions’ “T” offense. Sauder has a half-dozen candidates to replace Wall or at least carry some of the rushing load lost, but Kaeden Miller, who lined up as a receiver last year, has separated himself from the pack.
“We will likely have a constant rotation with our running backs,” Sauder said. “It will give them breathers and allow them to stay fresh.”
Crawford and Gudakunst appear to be the top two receivers entering the fall, but Cam Livingston, Peyton McHale and Owen Lantz should also command attention.
By and large, the Lions will line up with double tight ends and will always be in their “T” formation. But the opportunities for Barbour to make plays vertically will be there.
While East Noble has ruled the NE8 over the last two years, Leo has been right there, particularly last season when the Lions’ two losses both came at the hands of the Knights.
What excites OTH the most about Coach Sauder’s team is a defense that is still relatively young with a plethora of juniors who saw a lot of varsity action in 2019. That defense last year held every opponent but one under 20 points. Even with Sheron out early on, this could be a scary-good defense.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could see some of the best in the NE8 take on the SAC in regular-season action? Ah, OTH can dream.
That said, we have to judge Leo on what we have seen and the potential for 2020. Until it can knock off East Noble, the Lions must be below the Knights. But the gap should close significantly this season. The hierarchy of the NE8 could look a bit different by year’s end.
Week 5 vs. East Noble
No other regular-season game comes close to this one. The Knights have laid claim to the Northeast 8 for two years and are looking strong again.
Leo’s chance to reclaim the NE8 for the first time since 2017 rests largely on this showdown.
The youngsters of the Lions showed they could hang with Coach Luke Amstutz’s team last November. Can they get over the hump this year?
“Our early-season schedule is not easy,” said Sauder, whose team also has road tests at Angola and New Haven in the first four weeks. “We need to be in mid-to-late season form a lot earlier.”
Jackson Barbour, junior, quarterback
The training wheels are off Barbour, so to speak. After a sophomore year that saw him thrown into the deep end of varsity starting action, the expectations have been raised with the quarterback now a junior.
Jackson is a gym junkie, always working to get better, whether it be his velocity, his footwork or his accuracy. Improvement in all three area will be pivotal.
“We like what we have seen so far from Jackson in terms of running the offense,” Sauder said. “He is going to face the pressure of making the right decisions and the right reads. We have confidence in him.”
PREVIOUS OTH FOOTBALL PREVIEW TOP 15 TEAMS