WEST PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — The West Senators are coming off a 5-5 season. Head coach Merrill Triplett is gone, deciding to retire at the conclusion of the 2013 season. Only two starters return from last year’s squad.
A new coach, new system, new team; the 2014 season doesn’t look promising for the Senators. But then again, West fans should feel reinvigorated and optimistic about their team as the new season approaches.
New coach Ben Johnson is excited about continuing the tradition at West and doesn’t view his first head-coaching job as a rebuilding project.
“They’ve had a great tradition here and the previous coaches did a nice job,” Johnson said. “I really don’t feel like it’s a rebuilding process, it’s more of a rejuvenation. We have a lot of good kids here that are working really hard. I’m proud of the way they’ve worked and I’m looking forward to the season.”
Although the Senators will feature a host of new faces in its starting lineup, all are veteran role players. With the infusion of young veterans at his disposal, Johnson has found it easier teaching his system.
“Learning a new system and starting with new guys as probably helped us a little bit,” Johnson said.
Offensively, Johnson will employ an I-formation, pro-set style. He will occasionally mix in some spread looks, but the main focus for the offense is to find a 50-50 balance of run to pass ratio.
The one returning starter on offense is quarterback Steven Irwin, who seems suited to run Johnson’s offensive system. But above all else, Johnson is pleased with Irwin’s leadership.
“He’s definitely been the leader in the offseason for us,” Johnson said. “He’s probably the one guy that we can count on to be our leader heading into this season.”
Behind Irwin, Trevor Welch and Bryson Hurd have been competing for playing time at the halfback position while Austin Kinker and Sam Kegley are competing at the fullback spot. Johnson is pleased with all four players progress but admitted that their standing on the defensive side of the ball will impact how much offense they play.
“All four of them are doing a nice job so far,” Johnson said. “Some of them are also going to have to play on defense, so that’s also going to have a little bit of an effect where they end up offensively. Having two at each position, pushing each other has been really good for us. It keeps them from getting complacent.”
Most quality teams are built from the inside out, meaning they have quality offensive and defensive lines. West has a strong first unit but Johnson is concerned about the depth chart beyond the starters.
“We have good core guys but beyond that we’re pretty young,” Johnson said.
One of those players that has stood out in the preseason is Josh Davis who is expected to play the weak-side guard and will also compete for playing time at a linebacker spot.
“He’s worked real hard this offseason, he’s a good player,” Johnson said.
On defense, West is going to run a 4-4 (four down lineman, four linebackers). The Senators plan on playing a lot of eight-man fronts and bringing extra pressure at the point of attack.
To run this type of defense, a team must have a quality secondary in case an opponent throws the ball. Johnson believes he has a secondary that will hold up strongly this season.
“I feel good about our secondary,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some guys with good speed, but also guys that are athletic, mean and good tacklers. I feel really good about our safeties and cornerbacks.”
Defense and special teams is going to be a staple of this year’s West squad. As long as Johnson coaches the Senators, those are going to be the two focal points for future teams.
“We are going to really focus on defense first,” Johnson said. “Play great defense, we are going to be great on special teams. And then on offense, we are going to focus on taking care of the ball and not turning it over.”
In a bit of deja vu, the 2014 version of the Senators resembles last year’s squad as far size, or lack thereof.
“We’re not real, real big but we are very strong, pound for pound,” Johnson said. “And, we have speed at our skill positions.”
Even though Johnson is entering his first season at West, the goal is a lofty one.
“Our goal is to win the league championship every year,” Johnson said. “It’s a tradition here at West and that’s what we always want to set out to do. That’s going to be an extremely hard task but that’s what we are working toward.”
Chris Slone can be reached at 353-3101, ext 1930, or on Twitter @crslone.