If the St. James Wildcats are to successfully defend their Class 3A state championship, young guys will have to lead the way.
That’s particularly true on the offensive line, where Jamaul Hooker and Jace Phillip return as starters despite only being sophomores. Another sophomore, D’Shawn Jenkins joins the group.
“Leaders don’t have to be defined by a grade or classification,” St. James coach Robert Valdez said. “The kids that work and do what you ask them to do and give you your best, that’s what I classify as leaders. They give us an opportunity. They work hard, and they are sponges. They love playing football.”
They also embrace being leaders at a young age.
“My eighth-grade year, I started playing varsity. The seniors took me under their wing and ever since then, that leadership has played a role,” said Jenkins.
“Our younger offensive linemen have been in the organization for a while, so I think we have a lot of experience,” Phillip said.
“You have to know how to take control and you have to learn how to teach others and stuff like that,” chimed in Hooker.
To add depth, Jenkins and Phillip are expected to see quite a bit of time along the defensive line. Hooker, the team’s center, may see some action on that side of the ball as well.
“Jamaul is basically an offensive lineman but Jace and Deshawn are defensive linemen that we converted to play both ways,” Valdez pointed out. “Jamaul will probably go some both ways because it gives us a little more depth.
“Here, everybody can run, so we have depth at all other positions. The offensive and defensive lines are areas where we would love to have depth.”
The approach to installing offensive and defensive schemes, Valdez said, must come at a bit of a slower place with young linemen.
“The only thing right now is you really can’t go fast,” the St. James coach said. “You can’t go fast because they still haven’t grasped the playbook, and since they are going both ways, you don’t want to wear guys out.
“We like to get into a situation where we play at a faster tempo but when you have guys who go both ways, you kind of want to monitor their minutes. You want to give them breaks every once in a while, and substitutions but we will be leaning heavily on them to do great things for us.”
High-profile players like quarterback Shamar Smith, running back Sean Lebeouf and defensive lineman Chase Geason are gone from a year ago, but current Wildcats know the target is on their backs as defending champs and that provides for unique motivation.
“Every time I work out, I think about the people we beat last year and how they want to beat us, and I work harder each day,” said Jenkins.
Being part of a state championship team of a year ago, said Phillip, brings no guarantees to the new season.
“You just have to stay focused and if you are good at it, you get the spot. The spot just doesn’t go to anybody. You have to earn it,” he said.
And the confidence remains high.
“We have a lot of potential. I believe we can do it again,” said Hooker.