Putting a difficult season in the rear-view mirror is easier said than done, but first-year Dukes football head coach Rob Howells thinks his group is more than capable.
Wellington finished 0-10 last season amidst a slew of injuries and the departure of main contributors. The difficulty came on the heels of a 2016 squad that posted a 5-5 mark and ranked fifth in scoring in Lorain County.
Howells was hired in December to replace Roy Moore, whose one-season stint at the helm came after a three-year stint by coach Sean Arno.
Howells is counting on a ground-and-pound offense to help lift a Dukes team made up predominantly of underclassmen back toward prominence.
“You just have to remain positive and let them know this turnaround can be done,” he said. “What I’ve tried to do is focus on the University of Central Florida. They went from a winless season to a .500 season and then to an undefeated season. It’s baby steps and you have to try and go about it that way. Positive reinforcement is just so important. I try to tell the guys that just because I’m yelling or screaming doesn’t mean I’m mad. I’m just trying to get them in the right place where they can be the football player they want to be.”
Ben Higgins returns as the week one starting quarterback after tearing his labrum last season during Wellington’s second game. That injury came after Higgins had worked his way back from two broken arms suffered in an outfield collision while playing baseball.
Despite missing a large chunk of 2017, the junior managed to pass for nearly 700 yards and provided a noticeable spark to the offense once he returned to the field.
“It feels great knowing that all of the hard work is paying off,” Higgins said. “Getting a chance to play again is an amazing feeling. Being out here on the field with my teammates feels so good. I always try to be a good role model for kids younger than me and the one coaches look at for leadership. I’ve been a quarterback since I was in junior high and I know the position well. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. The offense this year is new for me but I trust the process.”
Running back Mason McClellan, receiver Parker Adler, and middle linebacker Jayson Keenan will be counted on to provide stability and help make up for the losses of graduates Mason Wright, Drew Mason, and Nathaniel Shelton.
Sophomore Jayden Skinner as well as freshmen Kaleb Taylor and Tyler Moore are also slated for significant chunks of playing time, Howells said.
“The new coaches have been fantastic,” Adler said. “Last year was a big step back from what it seemed like we were building up. I just want to lead and set a good example, to show everyone how football is supposed to be and get back to winning. We couldn’t execute last year on offense and turned the ball over all the time.”
Howells said the defense will mostly stick with a four-man pass rush and cover 2 scheme but remain open to more aggressive 5-2 looks depending on what opponents’ film shows.
“We’ve got to keep up the intensity no matter what defense we’re playing, especially without a lot of seniors to count on,” said Keenan, a junior. “There’s a lot of responsibility with being a middle linebacker, and I like that. I put in the work to get it and they didn’t just give it to me. I earned it. People are actually happy to come to practice and condition now. There’s going to be a big difference this year.”
The team kicks off its season Aug. 24 at Normandy. It will be Wellington’s last year in the dissolving Patriot Athletic Conference before forming a new Lorain County League with Oberlin, Firelands, Black River, Keystone, Columbia, Clearview, and Brookside.
“We’ve been saying ‘win the day’ since I got here,” Howells said. “Go 1-0 in everything you do. Every rep, whether that’s in practice, the weight room, or a game, just try to win the day, get that inch, and hopefully in the end you can stack up. We’re starting something new here and trying to get back to the winning tradition of Wellington.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.