Catholic Central football coaches have usually been able to overcome low turnouts each year by developing team spirit and having ultra-competitive players who love the game.
But Mike McKenna, who is in his third year running the program after 25 years as the offensive coordinator, is waiting for that typical Irish enthusiasm to kick in.
“We’ve been very business-like,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of rah-rah yet because I think they’re learning so much and they’re kind of overwhelmed a little bit as they’re going through it.”
Since McKenna is installing an entirely new offense while also revamping the defense, it’s probably understandable that his 21-player squad is in a studious mode.
Gone is the spread attack, which has been in place since 2004. The Irish will run the wing-T — with a twist.
Instead of being under center, senior quarterback Jayden Borden will take shotgun snaps with junior fullback John Kennedy behind him in pistol formation. Speedy juniors Collin Downing and Ryan Ewing, who will alternate at wingback and slot receiver, will line up just behind the tackles and create confusion by going in motion nearly every play.
“We’re not going to out-run anybody. We’re not going to out-physical anybody. We have to use misdirection to be successful,” McKenna said. “This is a ball-control offense. If we can keep our offense on the field and their offense off, we’ll do well. We have to slow the game down.”
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The Irish, 3-7 last season after going 6-4 in 2016, won’t abandon the passing attack altogether. Borden has a strong arm, and senior receiver Mykah Eichie has plenty of potential.
“Since he’ll be our only receiver, he’ll be the focal point in our passing,” McKenna said. “He can catch anything. He’s just an athlete.”
The 6-foot, 185-pound Borden will read his keys each play. If Eichie has single coverage with no safety help, the ball is coming his way. If the safeties drop back, Borden will hand off to one his backs or keep it himself depending on what he sees.
“It’s the old-fashioned way of thinking,” McKenna said. “It’s not so much what the whole defense is doing. You’re picking on certain personnel — the defensive end, defensive tackle, corner. It all depends on how they react on certain plays. It’s a ‘if-then’ offense. If they do this, then you do that.”
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The Irish are short on skill-position players, but McKenna is high on the ones he has.
Eichie didn’t come out of football until the third game last season — and had two interceptions in his debut against Triad. In a seven-on-seven event this summer at Urbana University, he caught the attention of college coaches in attendance.
The 5-11, 185-pound Kennedy is a plow horse who will be tough to bring down.
“He’s a very hard runner and runs low to the ground,” McKenna said. “He’s your classic whole-package fullback that you used to see back in the day. He’s a thick kid, but he also plays fast.”
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Central is ditching a traditional defensive front for a three-linemen, five-linebacker set.
The nose guard is senior Paul Kuss-Shivler, a 300-pounder. “He’s going to really clog up that middle,” McKenna said.
Senior DT David Henderson is expected to be solid, and the coach has confidence in Kennedy at middle linebacker. But the starting outside linebackers are freshmen Terrell Robinson and Pat Kavanaugh, and there’s youth at other positions.
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The key for the Irish with so few players is to stay healthy. They had a slew of injuries last year with eight of 10 seniors missing action.
The schedule will be a challenge again with upcoming Ohio Heritage Conference foes West Jefferson, West Liberty and Greeneview all coming off playoff seasons. But they won’t relish facing Central since it likely will be the only time they’ll see the wing-T.
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“With the guys I’ve got, we’re going to be the rookie team on the block,” McKenna said. “I think it’s going to be very difficult. But I’m hoping this offense helps us out.”