Lions football emphasizes off-season work
The 2019 football season, in a way, starts now for the St. Helens Lions.
The team finished a 4-5 season (3-3 in league games) on Oct. 26, coming one win away from making the Oregon School Activities Association Class 5A playoffs.
The Lions won't get back on the field again for months, and many of the players will be busy with basketball or wrestling or track and field or baseball.
But what happens on a near-daily basis between now and then will be key to how St. Helens does starting next August.
"What they do in the weight room right now is really important," coach Cory Young says. "I think we have all but two of our football players scheduled to be in the weight room at school and getting ready to play a full season next year."
St. Helens will graduate some key players at most every spot on offense and defense, including key two-way contributors such as Isaiah Bettencourt, Shawn Lee, Alex Cross, Connor Koelzer and Daniel Suon, to name just a few.
That means opportunities next fall for others.
It also puts Young and his coaching staff in a bit of a wait-and-see mode — not only in terms of which individuals earn starting jobs and playing time but also in what kind of look the Lions will present on both sides of the ball.
"Our philosophies, like how we want to block people, stay the same, but we like to look at the talent each year and adjust the system to that," Young says. "So the formations we run plays out of and how we structure the defense can change based on talent.
"We don't want to put a square peg in a round hole."
So, and perhaps especially on offense, "we'll find out more in the spring," Young says, when asked about likely schemes for the St. Helens attack.
The Lions used two quarterbacks in 2018. One of them, senior Leif Nelson, won't be back. He completed 23 of 52 passes (44.2 percent) for 330 yards and four touchdowns, with four interceptions. Nelson also was steady at running the offense and picked up a tough yard when needed.
But Jakob Robbins played a lot at QB as well as a sophomore, and had some big plays and moments, and will have a shot to carry even more of the load next season.
Robbins, 5-9, 155, completed 41 of 75 passes (54.7 percent) for 604 yards and six TDs, with five picks. He'll be wrestling this winter and is expected to be a runner and javelin thrower on the track and field team in the spring while developing his body and football game all-around.
"For Jacob, just getting more experience in understanding the offense and the (defensive) coverages will come with more time and reps," Young says, "and as he gets older and stronger, he will be able to make more of the throws we ask for."
Who replaces Bettencourt and Lee as the Lions' primary ball carriers will be a major area for everyone to address. Some players who are expected to return got looks in the offensive backfield this season, notably Jacobi Allen and Ashton Smith.
Allen, a 5-9, 180-pounder, carried the ball 37 times for 240 yards (6.5-yard average).
Smith, a 5-10, 170-pound sophomore, had eight attempts for 17 yards, while serving at cornerback and earning second-team all-West Division honors on defense.
Some returning players could move to running back or other new spots. The Lions finished 2018 with 1,580 yards rushing and 1,126 passing, and with 21 touchdowns on the ground to 12 in the air. So keeping the run game strong will be vital to their hopes next season.
On paper, coming off this season, the Lions have good tight ends in the fold in 6-0 175 Canon Beisley, who will be a senior, and 5-11, 165 Austin Waite, who got some reps at that position late in the season as a junior.
Both could be receiving targets in 2019, along with seniors-to-be Cody Woodruff, Hayden Bigham and others.
The Lions are likely to use several of their best athletes both ways.
One of the top prospects for the 2019 defense is Gaven Kust, who broke in well this season as a sophomore, 5-11, 205-pound linebacker. Kust made 28 tackles, nine solo.
Kyle Parnell is penciled in as the place-kicker and punter. He handled both roles this season as a junior, gaining all-league second-team recognition for his kicking and making the honorable mention list for his punting.
Young says he'll be looking during the offseason and at camps for players who are capable of making significant strides, as did 2018 season senior Kruze Katzenmeyer.
"He was a guy who really came on this year, after batting injuries for years," Young says. "He really stepped up and played the safety spot at times as good as anybody we've ever had there.
"Who it will be doing that sort of thing for us next year, I don't know yet."