After back-to-back SAC championships, 2021 saw Homestead take a slight step back.
Three regular-season defeats saw the Spartans fall out of the league race and a shutout defeat at the hands of rival Carroll in the sectional opener concluded the year on a sour note.
With just seven back – including only two on the defensive side – Homestead is looking for a new crop of talent to step up and put the program back atop the SAC.
While there are more questions than in the previous few years, Coach Chad Zolman has proven he can field a consistent contender.
Quarterback Peyton Slaven is one of five offensive starters that are back. Slaven threw for 1,893 yards and 19 touchdowns a season ago while also rushing for 245 yards and five scores. The senior isn’t a running QB per se, but he can buy time out of the pocket and make some things happen with his legs if need be.
Leading rusher Brett Fuchs (90 rushes, 432 yards, six TDs) is back for his junior campaign, as is classmate Kam Johnson, who saw some time in the backfield and scored three rushing touchdowns in 2021. The duo coupled with Slaven give the Spartans experienced options in which to run the ball.
The offensive front lost some beef, but does return multi-year starter Eric Williamson at tackle, junior Jackson Bell at guard and senior Carter Werth at center. Homestead has a multitude of options up front to fill the other two spots, a luxury not many programs in the area have.
Nate Anderson, Gage Sparrow and Grady Swing combined for over 1,600 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns through the air in 2021. All have graduated, leaving the top returner senior Mason Auxier (11 catches, 128 yards).
Of the 19 touchdowns Slaven threw last year, all were to seniors, meaning no returner has a touchdown reception.
Seniors Gavin Cozad (two catches, 31 yards) and Zac Zolman (one catch, eight yards) will need to step up and produce at the wideout position.
A huge addition, literally, is senior Grant Leeper. Adding football along with his hoops prowess, the 6-foot-7 target will help tremendously as a guy who can be a safety net for Slaven as he towers over the defense. Arlondo Sheets, a junior, will also see time at tight end with his 6-3, 245-pound frame.
The defense lost even more production than the offense, including the top seven tackles and nine of the top 10. However, the leading tackler back, senior lineman Jackson Christmon, is one of the best at his position in the state.
Christmon will be joined by the 6-5, 400-pound John Waddell, who Coach Zolman describes as ‘the biggest human I’ve ever coached.’ Waddell can move pretty well for his size and had 15 tackles and two TFL last season. Sheets will also line up in the trenches in the Spartans’ 3-3-5 scheme.
The linebacker corps will have to make do without Max Schlitz, who is now at Saint Francis. The unit is completely new with seniors Gavin Weible, Tyler Litwinko, Braxton McLaughlin and Justin Goskowicz all penciled in to handle the duties at the second level.
Homestead was able to pick off just five passes last year, and all five of those are gone. A pair of seniors in Ian Griffin and Cozad will hold down the back end as well as juniors Wyatt Little and Michael Welch.
McLaughlin will punt and Niko Stevrites will kick as the Spartans look to replace the fantastic Carter Dixon.
After reading the above, you would think that Homestead would be a lot further down in our top 10. While there is a lot of inexperience slotted in to starting roles, there is also a lot of potential.
Do not discount the advantage of returning a starting quarterback in a league that does not have many of them. With Slaven and experience at running back returning, it is easy to feel good about where the offense is, especially with an offensive front that is always stout and returns three starters.
While the defense may be more of a work in progress, the fact that the most experience back is up front will help. Getting pressure in the backfield and forcing opponents into bad decisions will help as the linebackers and defensive backs grow comfortable in their expanded roles.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
When looking at complete football teams to start the year, Homestead still has too many question marks to challenge for the top two spots.
How this year goes for the Spartans will be dictated on how quick the inexperience turns into guys with a veteran presence on the field. Does it happen quickly? Does it happen towards the end of the season? Does it happen at all?
“We will be starting a lot of new faces this year,” Coach Zolman said. “Their willingness to embrace humility and to create unity will be the difference between an average season and a great season.”
Week 7 vs. Carroll
As if this rivalry game needed any more added drama after the Chargers won twice last season, former Homestead quarterback Jimmy Sullivan is now at Carroll and is expected to be QB1 in Huntertown.
This game comes during a brutal stretch of games for Homestead that sees them play Luers, Dwenger, Snider, North Side and Carroll in consecutive weeks.
We will find out a lot about the Spartans over those five weeks, but the big one, for a lot of reasons, is against the Chargers.
Peyton Slaven, senior
Slaven won a summer QB battle over Sullivan (now at Carroll), so the trust is apparent as the senior looks to built off his stat line from last season.
But more than stats, Slaven is the commander of an offense that lacks proven production at wide receiver. Many are looking at the void of veteran playmakers as a big reason why Homestead may not be in SAC title contention by midseason.
But as we have seen before, Homestead’s depth and offensive scheme can elevate the play of its quarterbacks. If Slaven can protect the football, move the offense and put points up on the board, the Spartans will be in good shape.