Kickoff 2018: Knights travel to Mercer Co. to take on West Middlesex

Sophomore Owen Trumbull takes over at quarterback for Eisenhower this season.

Eisenhower started the 2017 season solidly behind the 8-ball. The Knights opened the year in arguably the toughest way possible. First, they welcomed Mercyhurst Prep to the Pasture of Pain then followed that with a road trip to Fort LeBoeuf.

Eisenhower was competitive in both games despite going 0-2, but the physicality of the contests took its toll and tested the Knights’ depth for the remainder of the season.

While still a physically tough start, Eisenhower opens the 2018 season tonight in a more evenly matched contest at West Middlesex.

“That start (last year) was just brutal,” Eisenhower coach Jim Penley said. “We still have a very tough schedule this year, but we have a chance to get off to a better start and build some confidence.”

That confidence could be the key to the Knights finding their way back into the playoffs. To build it quickly, they’ll have to find a way to contain the Big Reds’ Clayton Parrish. He led the team last year with 245 carries for 1,270 yards and three touchdowns.

West Middlesex took the phrase “primarily a run-first team” to a whole new level last year, throwing for only 422 yards on the season. The Big Reds made some big changes in the coaching staff. Mark Means steps in with the goal of turning the program around from a 2-9 season, and he brought District 10’s first 5,000-yard passer, Kolten Hoffman, with him as an assistant.

While the change will likely help balance the offense, Penley still expects Parrish to be featured heavily in the offensive game plan.

“He’s a solid player on both sides of the ball,” he said.

Still, the Big Reds will have to contend with a strong Eisenhower front, anchored by region all-star Joey Bauer at nose tackle.

Bauer finished with 36 tackles last season, including 12.5 for loss and 7.5 sacks. He’ll be flanked by Jeramy Card (27 tackles, 3.5 TFL, sack) and Wes Schwanke (12 tackles, TFL). At linebacker, Garrett Head and Ethan Chambers combined for 119 tackles a year ago.

“The biggest thing is we have to get our defensive ends to contain the pocket,” Penley said. “Most DEs are rushing to get sacks, but we’re trying to get our guys to understand that they’ll still get sacks in contain because Bauer and Card and those guys are going to collapse the pocket and force the quarterback right to them.”

The Knights are also making a bit of a change offensively. After splitting time with Spencer Head at quarterback last year, sophomore Owen Trumbull is set to take over full-time this year. Penley knows building the young signal caller’s confidence will be a big key to his success, and a strong summer has already made a noticeable difference.

“He’s making more calls at the line and really taking command of the huddle,” Penley said.

Trumbull isn’t the only Knight who has had a strong camp either. Fellow sophomore Zane Alexander has separated himself at the receiver position and figures to be Trumbull’s go-to option in the passing game.

Eisenhower’s top three rushers from last season (Jaydon Hayes, Jonah Samuelson and Spencer Head) have all graduated, but Chambers (57 carries, 261 yards, 4 TD) and Garrett Head (22 carries, 200 yards, 2 TD) are back and ready to take on larger roles. They’ll be joined in the backfield by Nate Holt (9 carries, 69 yards, TD) and Riley West. Penley has been impressed with all four ball carriers so far.

“Garrett is running well and starting to excel at receiving,” he said. “Nate Holt has looked really good running the ball and West has been impressive. Ethan’s just Ethan, we know he’s going to run hard and smash through.”

West Middlesex showed a 3-3 base defense in its scrimmage against Fort LeBoeuf last week. In their scrimmage against General McLane, Corry and Harbor Creek, the Knights got a taste of that defense, though the styles appear to be different.

“Those teams (last week) were all attacking,” Penley said. “We handled it well, but there were a few plays where it caused us to be off by just a little bit. (West Middlesex) stayed back and reacted to where the ball was going. If that happens, we should be able to get our scheme set up and gain five or six yards every play.”

Opening kickoff at Big Red Stadium in West Middlesex is set for 7 p.m.