The Ironmen return 17 letterwinners, 16 seniors, 13 starters and a good overall nucleus of experienced players for fourth-year head coach Shane Wolford.
JACKSON — Tradition-rich football programs, such as the one at Jackson High School, rely on what they do best.
For the Ironmen, they have built their proud tradition on solid week-to-week preparation, senior leadership, strong young men in the trenches, a power running game and a swarming aggressive defense.
And, while there are always changes from year-to-year, one thing remains the same at Jackson.
The Ironmen will rely on their strengths to propel them toward a Southeastern Ohio Athletic League championship and a Division II playoff appearance.
Those strengths in numbers this season are 17 letterwinners, 16 seniors, 13 starters, and a good overall nucleus of experienced players.
Jackson head coach Shane Wolford, who enters his fourth season as the Ironmen boss, said this year’s Ironmen “have been here before so they should know what we expect.”
The Wolford-led Ironmen have posted three straight winning seasons, and are aiming for a fourth as well as a league championship and an eighth postseason appearance in school history.
Jackson last won the SEOAL a decade ago, but qualified for the Division III playoffs just two years back.
“We have a lot of guys with experience, some of them played as sophomores,” said Wolford. “We started preparing for this season last December. When you’ve worked that long and had the numbers that we did in the weight room, I think we are definitely ready for this season.”
Wolford said his seniors sure are.
“Our seniors definitely make up a huge group. This is the largest senior class that we’ve had since I took over,” he said. “This is a group that knows everything that we are doing, they have experience with the system and we’re looking for big things out of them.”
While the Ironmen did graduate all three of their first-team all-SEOAL and first-team Division II all-district selections — fullback Bruce Smith, tackle William Tomblin and linebacker Greg James — there are plenty of capable players ready to step into the spotlight.
Senior tailback Cody Huff is one of those, as he is expected to be the team’s “workhorse” according to Wolford.
Huff rushed for 878 yards on 107 carries as a junior, amassing eight yards per carry while scoring eight touchdowns.
“Cody had a great year last year and we look for him to carry the bulk of the load this year,” said the coach.
Rotating at fullback are juniors Nathaniel Haller and Eric Landrum and sophomore Klay Arthur, as senior Josh Brown is back at quarterback along with Landrum and fellow senior Tyler Boggs.
Brown is the incumbent, as Boggs returns to the team after being ineligible last season.
“We may have two quarterbacks in there at times, and we can possibly throw in a third,” said Wolford. “Josh Brown has a full year in, and Tyler Boggs and Eric Landrum have played quarterback their entire lives. All three of them do their own thing a little bit better than the others, but they have all been working really well together.”
The wingbacks in the pro-I offense are sophomore Derrick Meredith and junior Ryan Mullins, as Wolford also said “that some of the guys who could quarterback may play some wingback too.”
Mullins, the Ironmen’s first-team all-district placekicker, “has pretty good hands we found out.”
“It’s just a situation where we’re going to be moving people around this year,” said Wolford. “Offensively, there are going to be times this year where we have one kid playing in one position, and the next series he may be in a different one.”
Returning at split end is senior Lukas Lindamood, as fellow senior Kevin Speakman will also see some snaps.
Among the veteran offensive linemen are center Tyler Glassburn, right guard Adam Jones, right tackle Ryan Hughes and left tackles Jon Waugh and John McManis.
Glassburn, Jones and Hughes all started last season, as Hughes — like Huff — earned all-SEOAL and all-district Honorable Mention honors.
Hughes is noted as a strong run blocker, as Wolford said the Ironmen ran over 70-percent of their plays behind him last season and averaged over 270 yards per game.
Another Honorable Mention all-district choice — senior Brandon Trace — returns at tight end.
Trace caught 12 passes for 246 yards and four touchdowns.
“You’re looking at four out of the five guys (offensive line) coming back along with Brandon Trace,” said Wolford. “We definitely have a lot of kids back with some experience across the line, so we are looking for some good things out of them.”
Wolford also mentioned several individuals “which can jump in there and help us across the front line.”
Junior Frankie Mapes, at guard and tackle, and Ryan Klingaman, at guard and center, are two of them.
“We can mix and match guys quite a bit,” said Wolford. “We feel like we are very deep at our offensive line.”
The defensive line is bookended by two standout ends — Klingaman and Hughes — as Klingaman was the team’s leader in total tackles (83), sacks (10), tackles for loss (eight) and quarterback hurries (14).
Hughes had similar numbers with 52 tackles, including five for loss and seven sacks.
Mapes, McManis, junior Jimmy Brushart, senior Shawn Reed and sophomore Bubba Landrum are rotating in at defensive tackle.
The linebacking corps is paced by Trace, who was third on the team in tackles last season with 74.
Trace, Haller and Jones are the inside backers with Huff and Eric Landrum the outsiders in the traditional 4-4.
Meredith is the safety with Boggs back at one corner and Lindamood and Speakman at the other.
“Our linebackers and defensive backs, we feel like we can run pretty well,” said Wolford. “We’re looking for big things out of them flying to the ball. We feel like our defense could be pretty good this year. It was a good unit last year, and we expect the guys stepping in this year to pick up where last year’s group left off.”
The numbers at the skilled positions, though, “are down” expressed the coach.
That’s in conjunction with some of the underclass grades, as Wolford admitted that “our numbers in the freshmen and junior classes are down a little bit.”
But, for what the skilled players lack in numbers they make up for in interchangeability.
“I feel like we don’t have a lot of depth at the skilled positions, but we’ve got kids who can play a lot across those skilled positions,” said Wolford. “This year is really the first time that we’ve had this luxury of having a lot of kids who can play different positions for us.”
One of those is Brown, who can play outside linebacker, cornerback or safety.
Mullins may also play in the secondary when he’s not playing wingback, punting or kicking.
He averaged 50 yards per kickoff last season, booted 35-of-51 kickoffs inside the 10-yard line including half of those inside the five, and connected on 34-of-37 extra-point attempts.
However, the only time Mullins will attempt the points after — of course — is when the Ironmen score.
Jackson struggled with turnovers last season, especially fumbles, and consequently lost four games.
As for addressing that issue, Wolford said that — in the offseason — he “purchased what they call an anti-fumbling kit.”
“This kit…you fill the footballs with water,” he explained. “That makes it tougher for them to hold on to the ball. We’ve used that in almost every drill with our fullbacks and running backs, even some with our quarterbacks. And we go through the ‘Blaster’ all the time, and that ‘Blaster’ works the kids pretty hard as far as keeping a hold of the ball. Some of these kids love to carry the ball away from their body, but we’ve tried to emphasize over the summer keeping the ball in tight to the body. Our turnovers have been mostly fumbles, but we have definitely taken strides to try and improve that. Hopefully, the kids will listen to everything they’ve been taught.”
Last season, turnovers cost the Ironmen in league losses to Ironton, Portsmouth and Chillicothe.
This year, following the three traditional non-league bouts with Wellston, Waverly and Vinton County, the Ironmen entertain Portsmouth before three straight SEOAL road shows at Gallipolis, Marietta and Ironton.
Jackson concludes the regular season with three conference home clashes against Chillicothe, Logan and Zanesville.
Logan, the four-time defending SEOAL champion, and Zanesville, in its third and final year in the league, replace Warren and Athens on the schedule.
Wins over Warren and Athens have been anticipated in the past, but Logan and Zanesville present much greater challenges.
On preseason paper, Wolford thought this season’s schedule is the most difficult that he can remember as an Ironman.
But, he said the SEOAL won’t be won on talent alone.
“Looking down through the list, all the teams that we play are going to be tough,” he said. “But like I told the kids, everyone wants to talk about how tough our schedule is, you can’t use that as an excuse. It’s time that we show up every week ready to play. If you do that in this league, it’s going to be the team that shows up the most ready to play that is going to win it. Each week, it doesn’t matter if you have the most talent. You never know who is going to beat who in this league. If you turn the ball over and make mistakes, you are not going to win. You have to show up ready to play and do things right.”
Relying on retro
And, doing things right for the Ironmen this season means — as is Jackson tradition — relying on their experienced veterans and controlling the tempo of the game.
“We’re still going to be the same type of offense,” said Wolford. “Facts are facts, we have to do what we’re best at. And we feel like our line has a lot of experience running the plays that we have in the past. So why do something different if what you have been doing has been working? We feel like over the past few years that no one has really ‘absolutely’ stopped us. We think we’re pretty good at the stuff that we’ve been running, so we’re going to keep it up. If we are ready to play, we can beat anyone on our schedule.”