PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — The Portsmouth Trojans struggled throughout the 2013 season, finishing with a 3-7 record in Jason Sparks’ first year as head coach.
The Trojans seemed to struggle to learn a new system, which forced Sparks to simplify his game plan on Friday nights to accommodate his team. However, as season two approaches, Portsmouth has a better understanding of Sparks philosophy, which has raised the bar among the Trojan faithful in 2014.
“We have higher expectations with our familiarity with the system,” Sparks said. “This is a year and a half into the system for these guys as oppose to six months. They ran it last year. They’ve ran it all summer. The young guys that played JV last year ran it. So, it’s been the whole process of learning the system.”
First and foremost, in year two, Sparks has been able to open up more of his playbook, unlike the simplistic version he was forced to display a season ago.
“Last year, we tried to stay as vanilla as possible to make it possible. And what you do is you show your hand and that’s not what we are about offensively, but we felt like we needed to do that to help solidify some things up front to make blocking schemes a little bit easier. And we you do that, people in the second and third quarter start to see your hand and they can dictate what you do.
This year, they’ve added a variety of formations to their arsenal to keep defenses off-balance. They might run one play out of ten different formations as opposed to 10 plays out of the same formation.
Portsmouth returns the majority of its starters, including Sky Oliver who took over the team’s quarterbacking duties in the middle of the season last year.
Along with Oliver, the Trojans return a talented stable of running backs, including Austin Hollins, Darray Richardson and Darrion Robinson —who is returning from injury. All three players will be competing for playing time in the backfield.
“They are all pretty talented, so they are all going to get to play a lot early,” Sparks said. “And if anybody separates themselves, then they’ll get the majority of the time.”
Up front, the Trojans seem to have solid depth. There are nine players competing for five starting positions. Michael Sturgill is expected to be the team’s opening day center with Ryan Penn and Vinnie Kennedy manning the two tackle positions. Both guard spots are still up in the air. There are two freshman, Cole Lowery and Anthony Ferrara, that have been impressive during preseason drills and Sparks expects them to contribute somewhere on Friday nights.
Overall, Sparks believes his offensive line —a proverbial weakness a season ago — has become a strong asset this year.
“We are a lot stronger than we were last year but that just comes from being in the weight room,” Sparks said.
For the second straight season, on defense, the Trojans will employ a 3-3-5 stack (three defensive lineman, three linebackers aligned directly behind the defensive lineman and five defensive backs).
A year ago, Portsmouth’s defense struggled mightily. Sparks doesn’t believe it has anything to do with scheme as much as missed assignments and simply learning a new system.
“We were susceptible last year on defense just because of the growing pains and learning everything,” Sparks said. “We are a month ahead right now of where we were last year, just having the familiarity of the scheme, and this being the second year, the kids know the calls, they’ve heard them more and more, and there’s less confusion.”
The biggest problem for the Trojan defense was stopping the run, which Sparks admitted was mostly due to mental errors.
“We had trouble against the run in aspects,” Sparks said. “… It was always a tale of two halves or a tale of two quarters. We would always shut something down in one quarter, then the next quarter we wouldn’t. A lot of that goes with the familiarity of the system. A lot of it was missed assignments, to the point, a team would run the same play twice in a row and our player would do to different things.
If the defense is going to improve its standing, it starts with the linebacking core and the Trojans have a deep and talented unit.
Michael Sturgill, Andrew Scott and Zach Delotell are the three leading candidates for the starting linebacker positions. However, Austin Mullins and Josh Cummings having been competing hard to earn a starting position. Sparks views the linebacker position as an interesting dilemma.
“If one of those backups takes those spots, then that means one of those starting linebackers can go somewhere else and play, which is big for us because we have a front six of 10 to 11 guys that can play,” Sparks said. “As of right now, the starting lineup is the starting lineup. All that really means is they get to go onto the field for the first series. The second series, someone else could be coming in … “
There is reason for optimism in Portsmouth and season two in the Sparks’ regime should bring additional success to the Trojans.
Chris Slone can be reached at 353-3101, ext 1930, or on Twitter @crslone.