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Wildcats return QB, line following leap year

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The Wildcats increased their win total by three after going winless in head coach Mark Talbert's first year, then jumped to 7-3 last season. Averages of 27.5 points scored and 22.9 allowed were each bests since 2012.

Even after graduating a few standouts like Tristan Voss and Zach Bergmann, it’s plausible that this year’s team is even better positioned to win.

It starts with dual-threat JJ O’Neal. The senior quarterback combined for 2,500 total yards last season –– over 1,100 rushing –– with 11 touchdowns throwing and rushing each.

O'Neal said that developing as a pocket passer has been the aim over the offseason and feels it's coming along, with time still to advance.

“Coach has told me they can see a difference from last year, and I hope I can make an even bigger jump by the first game,” said O’Neal, who has focused on his footwork as part of that intention.

Still, don’t expect the Wildcats to abandon his wheels.

“We’re definitely a spread run first team,” Talbert said. “Pulling guys out of the box formationally has been an emphasis for us, but we’re still very much going to use JJ in the running game, whether that’s calling the play for him or running our power or counter reads, or any other ones we have in for him.”

As important as the other skill positions, perhaps even more so, is an offensive line that is largely intact from last year, and even beyond.

“Tristan graduated, but the rest of them all started last year,” Talbert said. "Strength-wise, they're a group where a lot of them played as sophomores, so for three years they've been grinding in the weight room, getting significantly stronger."

A pair of second-team All-Big 8 players as juniors, Carson Combs and Calvin Chainey will be anchors of that group that includes other upperclassmen boulders who should help L-R match up better with conference opponents than in year’s past.

“Year in and out we’ve kind of gone in a little undersized up front and had to get creative with ways to run the ball,” Talbert said. “I feel like if we have the right mentality and play as low and aggressive as we’re capable, we won’t have to do that this year.”

Juniors Caleb Cole and Luke Hauer will seek to fill Bergmann’s shoes in the backfield with Patrick Comito also getting snaps as an H-back and some out of the slot. Talbert gave commendation to Logan Cook, who played as JV quarterback last year, for his efforts in transitioning to receiver, where he’ll line up opposite of Cody Rasmussen (552 yards, six TDs in 2020).

“I had Addy Miller [but] Cody became my No. 1 target the second half of [last] season,” O’Neal said. “Also Logan, ‘Cookie,’ he’s turned into a No. 1 (type). He’s gonna be a nice guy to sit in holes in the defense.”

Joey Anderson will be a focal point of the interior defensive line and will be joined by others who weren't starters but played significant time last year like Joey Anderson and Davin Agee. Behind them, two-way man Combs is expected to be even better as the Mike linebacker.

“After watching our jamboree film, I think he’s gonna be one of the better ones in the area,” Talbert said.

Cole, Hauer and Comito will assist in filling up the other spots in a 4-3 front that should look a bit more conventional.

“I’m pretty excited about the ability to line up in a normal defense and not have to roll an extra guy in the box or get our corners super involved,” Talbert said. “It’s encouraging to have the strength we dreamed about four years ago when we got here.”

Talbert felt positive about the jamboree at Springfield Central, saying, “We put the ball on the ground the first play; I think we were a little shell shocked playing against somebody other than our scout team. It took us a little bit to realize what another varsity team looks like, but we settled in and started putting things together. Defensively, I thought we were ready to play from the beginning. We’ve got to get better at tackling, but we were ready to play from the beginning, doing a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage.”

Rogersville starts Friday on the road with Nevada before the home opener Sept. 3 against Seneca.

“Nevada is a very physical football team; Coach [Wes] Beachler obviously has that program with an extreme amount of pride, playing a grind-it-out style,” Talbert said. “That’s a big concern for us as a contrasting style...This is now my fourth season and we’ve started 0-1 the last three. We want to set some long-term goals, but [starting 1-0] is all we’ve discussed openly.”

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