Losing the best player, a top college football recruit, from a team and a defense that labored through much of the previous season wouldn’t always lead to confidence and optimism.
East has no individual to replace Xavier Kelly, the dominant defensive lineman who is now a freshman at Clemson. The Blue Aces have a group of players, led by an experienced defensive backfield, who may be able to account for some of his production.
Much of last season was a struggle for East defensively, but the Aces finished off the season with an 8-0 win over Southeast.
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“We lost Xavier, but we also lost our inside linebackers and we lost some secondary guys,” Aces coach Bill Coffman said. “We feel like we’ve got some guys coming back to build around. Up front, we’ll be pretty new. We’ve got some kids coming back that played some last year.”
Many of East’s returners offer versatility, even though Coffman is often against two-way players, especially on the lines. Coffman calls Wesley Jones a utility player because Jones combines his skills as a safety with appearances at running back and wide receiver.
Jovon Givens and Blazer Snell bring similar utility, as both can play running back and defensive back.
Elijah Kelly, another piece of the secondary, brings superior athleticism with a 6-foot-3, 175-pound frame that makes him a difficult opponent for wide receivers – and on the other side for cornerbacks.
“Elijah came out last year and started at corner for us, which tells you something about his athleticism,” Coffman said. “He had a season-ending injury Week 1. We’ve worked him a lot at wide receiver this summer and he’s done very well.
“We think he’s going to do well for us at wide receiver because it’s hard to defend (a 6-foot-3 player) that can run.”
It isn’t yet clear who will throw Kelly and East’s other playmakers the ball. Greg Sousa, a senior and a part-time starter last year, is an option along with Milan Jenkins, a 6-foot-2 sophomore whose best asset is his running ability.
The look of the offense changes depending on who wins the job, so Coffman is approaching the decision carefully.
“Both of them are very athletic, and no matter who wins the job, the other one is going to be a contributor somewhere, somehow – either offense, defense or both ways,” Coffman said.
“Greg is extremely intelligent and understands the offense quite well. Milan brings a lot of athleticism. They both have a lot of good things that they bring to the table for us. We feel really good about our situation. We feel that no matter who wins that job, we’ll be in good shape.”
Last season was East’s low point after the it combined for 12 wins in the previous three seasons. The Aces will, as always, rely heavily on talented skill players, but their depth is often the biggest factor in their success.
“If our offensive and defensive lines come through, and if we can find some depth there so we don’t have to play full-time, I think we can be very competitive,” Coffman said. “I think we can become more productive offensively and keep the defense off the field.”