Wheeling Park’s line play will be key
WHEELING — The numbers are big at Wheeling Park — 105 players came out this summer for football.
The starting quarterback and all three running backs return. So does much of the defense.
Where Wheeling Park will have the biggest questions this season comes in front of its electric playmakers as the Patriots must replace all five starting lineman from a year ago, including all-stater Tristen Bittner, who signed to play for Marshall.
With its usual daunting schedule, Wheeling Park coach Chris Daugherty just won’t know how this new crop of Patriots will perform until they hit the field.
“Our numbers are up and I feel like we are doing something right if that many kids want to be a part of it,” Daugherty said. “I feel like they are working hard and doing well. We are ready to find out what we really are and what have to work on and what we need to fix, but so far, so good.
“It is a weird year because we are always a mix of age groups, rarely senior driven. Last year we had five senior offensive lineman and I don’t know if that has ever happened here. We have to find five new kids. I think we have the lineman, it is just a matter of finding who those five are and then getting them playing time. They are going to screw up and we just have to help fix those mistakes and hopefully they continue to grow as the season goes on.
“We have some speed and some skill outside and they have experience, even through they are juniors on paper, they have a year under their belt and played a decent amount so I feel good about that.
“Any time you replace your quarterback, that is nice, especially when you have the kind of junior year that he had.”
That quarterback is senior Alex Dunlevy.
In his first year as starting quarterback, Dunlevy stepped out of the big shadow of Cross Wilkinson and became one of the more dynamic quarterbacks in the Ohio Valley.
Dunlevy passed for 1,684 yards (153.1 per game) with 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also showed his wheels, rushing for 456 yards and seven scores.
“I think last year he was such a good athlete that he played off of that,” Daugherty said. “At times, I think just dropping back and passing wasn’t necessarily is his forte. He was very good at RPOs (run pass options) and ad libbing — really good at ad libbing — and making option reads and running the football when we asked him to do that.
“What a transformation over the summer. His improvement in (passing), that is why he has four or five scholarship offers. I think he is going to be able to drop back and throw it if we need him to do that.”
Dunlevy will be backed up by junior Beau Heller.
All three tailbacks return in seniors Kenya Robinson and Raphael Bradley and junior Stevie Mitchell, although Daugherty said Mitchell will likely be moved more to a slot receiver.
“It is very difficult to play three tailbacks so Stevie Mitchell is going to move out to slot and we think we have a dynamic player there,” Daugherty said. “He can catch, we are going to be able to put him in motion to give him the ball. Stevie should catch the ball in a lot of different ways.
“We will be in a one-back system as always. Kenya Robinson and Raphael Bradley shared time last year and I expect that to continue.”
Robinson paced the Patriots rushing attack with 955 yards (86.8 per game) and nine touchdowns, while Bradley carried 113 times for 768 yards and five scores.
Brandon McDaniels, a junior, is someone that could also see carries.
At wideout, the Patriots lost standouts DeVaughn McWhorter and Jack Stakem, but Daugherty feels that is still one of the deepest areas of the team.
“It’s crazy to say that when you lose who we lost to college football,” Daugherty said.
The receiving corps this season will be made of senior returning starter Xavier Morris, as well as juniors Carson Namack, Shaheed Jackson, Sincere Sinclair, Nate Hairston and Torrence Walker. Daugherty said he could go “on and on with kids you might see at any given snap.”
Despite not being a starter last season, senior Jack Saines played a lot along the offensive line and figures to be a solidifying figure at right guard.
Caleb Bryan and John Olako will be the tackles. Multiple players working out at left guard and center to see who will be in the mix.
With the size in numbers at Wheeling Park, Daugherty likes the idea of not playing kids two ways but one person that may be forcing his hand is Timmy McCabe.
“He is probably the kid that if anybody does play both ways, it is going to be Timmy,” Daugherty said. “Timmy is making that push.”
Wheeling Park doesn’t play much with a tight end, but when it does, Dustin Van Sickle will take that spot.
The defensive lineman will be McCabe, Dustin Van Sickle and Matt Reinacher.
Jermain Snodgrass was a leader at linebacker, and his loss will be a big one for the Patriots in the middle of the defense.
But the Patriots are returning a solid group featuring Brandon Brown, and outside with Seth Wood and Andrew Shelek.
“We are bringing back three of the five and we have to go find two more,” Daugherty said. “Right now, we are taking a defensive end that is transitioning to linebacker and that is Aden Edgmon. He is looking real well and maybe even a better fit than defensive end.”
Sophomores Hunter Nixon and Colton Thomas are in the mix at linebacker, along with Charlie Tamburin.
Walker and Jackson will likely be the corners, with Sinclair returning as starting free safety.
“We feel the guys that won’t be starting at receiver will be able to start for us in the secondary,” Daugherty said.
The Patriots are returning a strong contingent from last year, but how that group grows up could be the key to the season.
Wheeling Park struggled on that side of the ball during numerous games.
“Last year, our secondary was very green and young and our front guys were old,” Daugherty said. “The teams that tried to run on us, we did well against. Then there were some nights where we gave up a bunch of points and that means that team came out and threw a little bit or set us up with fakes and play-action, took advantage of our youth.
“I think we are going to be a little older back there now. I always say that I would love to have talented kids, but I will take returners over inexperienced talent. Nine times out of 10, that kid is going to be at the right spot at the right time doing the right thing. I think we have that. A little bit older, a little more confident, another year to have grown.”
Andrew Glass returns as kicker, with Dunlevy punting.
Wheeling Park has its usual daunting schedule featuring Two Rivers Conference foes Morgantown, University, Parkersburg South, and rivals Brooke and John Marshall.
The Patriots picked up an intriguing road matchup at St. Clairsville, at Zanesville and Hedgesville.
“It is tough year to year,” Daugherty said. “I guess that is why it is high school football. We are going to try to put the very best football team out there we can and continue to grow as men and make them work in that area as much as football.
“I think in time, we can grow into a very good football team.”