Crittenden County has averaged just over seven wins a season under 19-year head coach Al Starnes and despite some huge losses to graduation, the Rockets appear poised to make another run at the First District Class A title.
“I like our athleticism and the fact that we have several players who can catch and run,” said Starnes. “We’re really excited about this group of skilled players and I will be very shocked if this bunch doesn’t get after you.”
A blend of senior experience and youthful talent should give the Rockets enough to be among the top two or three teams in the district. Some early predictions have Mayfield and Ballard finishing ahead of Crittenden in the First District, but coach Starnes says his crew takes issue with that.
“We lost of a lot of good kids, and I think that’s where all of this is coming from. All I have heard is that Crittenden isn’t going to be as good because they lost everybody. This group of players has taken that to heart and they’re determined to prove that the last couple of years (20 wins) has been a team effort and not just about a few individuals.”
Although college-bound performers quarterback J.D. Gray and end Dylan Clark are gone along with other stars like Aaron Berry and Dyllan Thornton, the Rockets have reloaded at most positions. Replacing Gray’s speed and uncanny ability to avoid tackles will be difficult, but Starnes says there’s a bunch of skilled players ready to prove their worth.
“We have some guys who will make plays. Honestly, it’s the most weapons we’ve had in a long time,” the coach said.
He’s talking about the backfield and receiver corps with six players running under a five-second 40-yard dash. By the standards of many teams, that’s nothing to boast about, but in Marion it adds up to pretty good overall team speed when you look historically at the Rockets’ quickness.
The return of lineup regulars like seniors Andrew Freeman, Brian Berry, Terry Werne, Tanner Nix and Robert Cudnik give Crittenden a solid upperclass to build around. A solid group of juniors and a talented sophomore class give the Rockets reason to feel confident about the upcoming season.
Juniors Dustin Hernandez, Devin Wallace and Bryce Willis were role players last season. Now they figure into impact positions.
“This is a great sophomore class,” Starnes said. “It’s the best I ever remember.”
Counted among that group of more than a dozen 10th graders are linemen Stephon Cozart, Bobby Knox and Eli Bebout and skilled players like Grant Gardner, Bowe Wallace and Ethan Hill. Fans will take notice of those names this season, say members of the coaching staff.
The Rockets have a pretty tough pre-district schedule that includes 4A Hopkins Central, Massac County, Ill., and border rival Caldwell County. Still, Starnes says he’s working to toughen the slate in the near future.
Offensively, the Rockets are making some changes, moving away from its primary spread offense of the last few seasons. They will employ a familiar attack, however. The Wing-T was a staple in the team’s arsenal during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now it’s back as one bullet in a holster heavy with ammo.
“We have several offensive packages and we’ll move personnel around to fit what we’re doing,” Starnes said.
The spread, pro and power-I are other formations that defenses will see from Crittenden this year.
At running back, the Rockets will use a variety of players to fit into the scheme of the moment. At quarterback will be Brian Berry, who has seen spot action there the past couple of years. Berry is a team leader, has a very competitive spirit and has running and throwing skills to match. He’s proven his toughnesss by playing fullback and linebacker in the past.
Berry’s backups are junior Bryce Willis and freshman Travis Gilbert. Junior Dustin Hernandez is also capable of playing quarterback if needed. He was the junior varsity signal caller last year, but has been moved to running back.
Others in the backfield are seniors Andrew Freeman, Tanner Nix and Jacob Long; sophomores Bowe Wallace and Grant Gardner; and freshman Brenden Phillips.
Phillips will be the only ninth grader with much turf time – at least early in the season. He’s a good runner and blocker and will play fullback. Long was the team’s preseason ironman competition winner and has improved a great deal.
Freeman, Nix, Hernandez and Wallace have explosiveness. Freeman will be the featured back much of the time, and when the offense lines up in the spread, he’ll be the lone back.
At tight end are Willis and Knox and split ends will be Cudnik and Hill. Nix, Wallace and other backs can also be moved out to receiver on passing downs.
Up front is where the question marks surface. The offense has six returning starters, but some are playing new positions. Cozart and Werne are the only interior linemen with a great deal of playing time. Werne has moved to center this year and Cozart will play right tackle. Sophomore Eli Bebout, who started strong last year but got hurt and never really bounced back, is the starting left tackle. Junior Devin Wallace is right guard and senior Casey Hamby and sophomore Devin Clark are fighting for the starting job at left guard.
Juniors Elliott Day and Korey Mayes and sophomore Daniel Price are close behind on the OL depth chart.
The defensive face has changed as well. Crittenden largely ran a five-man front last season, but will go to a 4-3 this time, partly because it has so many linebacker type players. Plus, defensive coordinator Vince Clark has always been more comfortable calling the shots from the 4-3.
Bebout and Cozart are the tackles with Price and Mayes behind them. Devin Wallace and Werne are the ends with Clark, Hamby and Knox providing the depth. Werne played end last year, but was largely overshadowed by Dylan Clark, who was one of the best defensive ends in school history. Werne is a solid performer and will play a key role in the defense this year.
Freeman is the starting middle linebacker with Phillips No. 2 on the depth chart. Sam linebackers are Long and Gardner with Bowe Wallace and Knox playing linebacker on the other side. Berry and Willis will fill roles as strong safety, a hybrid linebacker/defensive back type player.
On the corners will be Cudnik and Nix with Josh Gaston in a backup role. Bowe Wallace, Aaron Owen and Travis Gilbert are also getting reps at cornerback. Hernandez will play safety with Ethan Hill as his primary backup.
Depth wise, the Rockets are heavy in the offensive backfield, but thin up front and in the defensive backfield. Coach Starnes has an even 40 players on the roster, the most in several years. Although numbers are better he says experience is limited. Crittenden lost to graduation six players that were basically two-way starters for a year or two. It will take a few games to get the new rubbed off some of their replacements, but Starnes likes the work ethic he’s seen.
“A lot of the kids have what it takes. They have that mentality to play. We might not win a game, but they’ll get after them, I promise you that,” he said.
The kicking game’s cupboard is almost empty. Several players have tried out, but so far there is no definitive starter. Berry will be the placekicker and punter, but it remains to been seen who will kickoff when the Rockets travel to Hopkins County Central Friday to face their first regular-season opponent.
The Storm was 4-7 last year while Crittenden was 10-3. The Rockets beat Hopkins Central 35-6 last season.
Pictured at top is QB Brian Berry during scrimmage against Muhlenberg County.