Despite a Northeast 8 championship and a second-consecutive 10-win season, the lasting memory of Leo’s 2020 season was the Lions being shut out on their home field by rival East Noble in the sectional championship.
It was the first home blanking in the playoffs for Leo since a 40-0 loss to Bishop Luers in 1998. While disappointing at the time, it gave the Lions off-season fuel as they prepped for 2021.
With the new season here, Coach Jared Sauder’s team is on the short list of NE8 contenders again.
“We have very high expectations this year with a strong and veteran senior class returning,” Sauder said. “We feel that a major strength of ours is both the offensive and defensive lines.”
It isn’t often that a team in northeast Indiana has two D1 commits along the line of scrimmage, but that’s exactly what the Lions have. Two-way linemen Landen Livingston (West Virginia commit) and DJ Allen (Rutgers) are both monsters in the trenches, with Allen quite fleet afoot for his 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame and can set the edge on defense while being a pass catcher when he lines up at tight end.
The return of Mason Sheron from injury will also be huge. Sheron will man the edge spot opposite of Allen, making quite the bookends for Leo on defense. Sheron will also see snaps in the offensive backfield.
While Leo will once again largely work out of the “T” formation, expect quarterback Jackson Barbour to throw more than the 66 times he did a season ago. Part of that is the weaponry, with senior Rylan Crawford (23 receptions, 356 yards, 5 TDs) back as well as a host of running backs, including leading rusher Kaeden Miller (104 rushes, 689 yards, 8 TDs), Ethan Crawford (100-503-4) and Max Loeffler (59-352-2).
But the other aspect of opening the offense up with Barbour is that East Noble made the adjustments in the playoffs to take the running game away. Once that was done, the Lions struggled to move the ball. In order to achieve the goals set by the team in 2021, it has to find more offensive balance.
Defensively, First Team All-NE8 selection Tanner Jackson (42 tackles, seven TFL, two sacks) leads a talented linebacking corps that also includes senior Carson Hoeppner (29 tackles, five TFL, five sacks). However, both starting inside linebackers from a year ago – Dallen Wirtz and Michael O’Brien – have graduated, leaving quite a void.
The secondary also brings back a number of familiar faces, led by Rylan Crawford (23 tackles, five INTs) as well as Loeffler and fellow junior Logan Barnett.
Perhaps the biggest hole left by graduation is at kicker, where Carson McCauley was near automatic as a placekicker and was a regular stud in the punting game. Damien Gudakunst’s three INTs a season ago will also need to be replaced.
Keep an eye on sophomores Kamden Zeisloft and Brett Fuller. Zeisloft is a natural athlete who will see action in a variety of different offensive roles. Fuller could be a plug-and-play linebacker if the need arises.
Fresh off its first outright league championship since 2014 in the Allen County Athletic Conference, Leo brings a bountiful amount of production back. With that comes higher expectations, with a sectional championship for the first time since 2011 a primary goal.
At the very worst, the Lions are 1B to East Noble’s 1A in the league entering 2021.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
While Leo is strong, physical and talented, being one-dimensional cost it in the postseason a year ago. The expectation is that the offense is opened up a bit in 2021, but with the sectional loss to East Noble still in our minds, the Lions slot in behind the Knights as the second-best non-SAC team in our top 10 countdown.
Sept. 17 at East Noble
If the league goes as expected, this will be the game for the league championship. Strength on strength here, as both programs have ascended above the rest of the NE8 in recent years. The last time these two squared off in Kendallville, East Noble beat Leo 14-7 in the sectional final in 2019. This will be the biggest game in the area in Week 5 by far.
Jackson Barbour, senior, Leo
While the case for Leo to throw the ball more was strong last year, particularly in the playoffs, it is up to Barbour to gain the trust of his coaches to force them to expand his role. Barbour runs the offense exceptionally well, selling fakes and deceptions as well as anyone around. But for Leo to reach the next level, it must be a consistent passing threat. If Barbour can deliver, this could be a special season for the Lions.