John Marshall football season preview: Numbers, optimism brimming for Rockets
These are different times for the Rochester John Marshall football program.
As in better times. As in the kind of times that the Rockets used to enjoy on a regular basis.
And when it comes to sheer numbers of kids out for the sports at JM, these are r-o-b-u-s-t times.
The skid that JM football hit from 2006 until 2010, the one that saw it go 17-28, including a 1-8 mark in 2009? Well, judging from the 7-3 mark it put up last season, those bad times seem over.
An even better judge may be what's coming down the pike. JM has a hefty 60-plus seniors and juniors out for football this season. The sophomore class also measures up to that, with 31 on the roster.
Then there are the freshmen. JM has 48 of them playing playing football in 2012.
Longtime JM coach Jack Drews doesn't like to look too far ahead. So, he considers this year's lofty numbers and says: "We've got 60 (seniors and juniors) out for varsity football. The more numbers you have the more competition you're going to have at each position. We're going to come as close to platooning at every position as we can."
Drews knows that robust teams, both in numbers and physical stature, are winning teams. Now, after a summer in which almost all of JM's varsity players headed to the weight room on a regular basis, with various team incentives to keep them coming back for more, the Rockets appears ready to win at a steady rate.
"Our goal is to win the conference this year, which is a legitimate goal with our team," Drews said. "We were third last year and we have quite a few starters back."
Still, even with all of those steadying things in place — including a pair of standout offensive tackles in 275-pound anchors Jackson Wilson and Ryan Just — don't put a Big Nine Conference title in ink for JM just yet.
There are still questions here.
Two of the biggest are on offense. And there, the spotlight shines brightest on Aaron Grad, the team's first-year starting quarterback.
Grad, who replaces former three-year starter Jake Kirsch, sure looks and acts the part. The senior is 6-foot-3, 205 chiseled pounds, is renowned as a leader, and is a three-sport athlete.
Still, he's barely completed a pass in his varsity career, with 2012 graduate Kirsch gobbling up almost all of the snaps last year en route to throwing for 1,000 yards and rushing for 400. Almost 500 of those passing yards were to elite 6-3 receiver Ryan Lakin, who's also graduated.
No matter. Grad has big team goals, spurred partly by what happened to his team in last year's Section 1AAAAA semifinals, a 35-0 pounding at the hands of an Owatonna team that may be equally good this season.
"We had all off-season to think about how bad that loss felt," Grad said. "If we don't win the conference, we'll be disappointed."
JM's other primary offensive question is this: Does it have any elite playmakers? It certainly had one last year in Lakin, whose speed, size and hands made him an all-state player.
"We may not have anyone quite like that this year, but we have more guys this year who can catch," Drews said.
The two most intriguing targets are speedy 6-3 senior Joe Loftus, and likely the tallest wide receiver JM has ever had, 6-6 senior Michael Bosshart.
At tailback, JM will likely start senior D'Von Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt doesn't have great size at 5-8, 165, but he is fast and elusive.
JM's line could be one of its best in years, though it will be without returning starting center Sunny Lai for at least the beginning of the season as he recovers from a hand injury. Besides those standout bookend tackles Wilson (6-3, 274) and Just (6-4, 275), JM will start Nate Johnson (5-11, 250) and Isaiah Minnich (6-3, 245) at guards, and Dallas Kennedy (5-9, 215) at center.
JM's defense has some star power, with explosive pass rusher Peter Jada (6-2, 210), terrific linebackers Alex Brady (5-11, 180) and Kaeleb Stangler (6-2, 215), and returning starting cornerback Xavier Robinson (5-10, 165).
"Defensively we have some real quickness," Drews said. "And we're bigger along our defensive front this season."
Jada takes it a step further.
"Our defense is going to be great," said the senior, whose personal goal is at least one sack per game. "We are filled at every position."
Now, is that the enthusiasm of youth, or really what's to come. We'll soon find out.