Run Through The Jungle: 2021 Jackson Liberty High School Football Preview
When you think of a jungle, what comes to mind?
Hot and humid. Lots of animals. Swampy areas. Some quicksand.
It can make things unpredictable in a sometimes fast-paced environment, but the way out of quicksand isn't to panic, it's to slow things down, trust in your training and keep calm.
And if you find help nearby, you call out as loud as you can in hopes of someone coming to rescue you before it's too late.
Pocket pressure in the backfield can often seem like quicksand and you could go down in a hurry -- being tackled, sacked, forced to fumble the rock.
Jackson Liberty has been trying to find their way offensively, searching for the right combination up front, trying to execute when holes open up for their skill players, and put more points on the board.
Their defense, in large part, has been able to keep them in most of their games.
But if you're not scoring, you're not winning.
In 2018, the Lions averaged just 9.1 points per game. In 2019, they scored 106 points for the season and in 2020 -- and yes it was a shortened season because of the pandemic -- they only scored 41 points in five games and that includes getting shut out in one of them by rival Jackson Memorial.
Now, they turn the page, hoping to spark a renaissance of offensive production in 2021.
Gone is the flexbone triple-option offense from a season ago as the Lions now become engaged in a Pro Style offense that'll move a few players around, including Cooper Yorke sliding from slot receiver to tight end.
"We are going to look to pound the ball with Zach Corrado and get it in the hands of Cooper Yorke with play-action and a quick passing game," said Jackson Liberty head coach Jim Sharples. "We have some experience at some positions but lack depth if we run into injuries."
Yorke, Corrado and Matt Romero are keying the returning players from last season and will look to help lead some newcomers to the team, including Dennis Caswell and Jack Duke.
They also may have a secret weapon heading into the season, that changes everything offensively -- senior Dallas Weisse.
"He went to Donovan Catholic for his freshmen year. He was really promising in 8th grade and we were disappointed to see him leave but glad he's back," Sharples said.
The senior is also a guard for the school basketball team, good enough to earn All-Division honors.
Sharples made a continued effort to get Weisse to come out for the football team and suddenly all that work paid off.
"Now he's come out for the team," Sharples said. "He's been playing quarterback and has been a pleasant, pleasant surprise. He still looks like he could get it done and what it allows me to do is to free up Connor Gallagher, who was the quarterback, and he could go back to his receiving role and help us a lot there."
A week and a half into training camp this summer, Weisse took over the starting quarterback job, impressing Sharples and the coaching staff along the way with his stellar arm.
"He does throw the ball really well," Sharples said. "We were struggling in that department and with our offense, which is going to be a running offense, if the defenses know you can't throw it, they're going to pack the box and there's going to be nine guys in there and it's going to make things really tough on us. Now, his (Weisse) ability to throw the ball -- short range, medium range -- he's very accurate, has a strong arm and he's also athletic."
"He could definitely run and run to buy himself some time in the pocket," Sharples said.
At A Glance
Projected Starters: RS=returning starter
Offense: Pro Style
QB: Dallas Weisse Sr., 6'0, 200
RB: Zach Corrado Jr., 5'8, 170, RS
WR: Connor Gallagher, Sr., 6'2, 190, RS
WR: Brandon Gallagher Jr., 5'10, 155
WR: Joey Celentano Jr., 6'2, 155
WR: Connor Hills Jr., 5'10, 155
TE: Cooper Yorke Sr., 6'1, 200, RS
LT: Brandon Bittar Jr., 6'5, 340, RS
LG: Matt Romero Sr., 5'8, 210, RS
C: Jack Duke Sr., 5'10, 210
RG: Anthony Georgiano So., 5'11, 230
RT: David Lidziev Jr., 5'11, 250
DE: Jack Duke Sr., 5'10, 210
DT: Matt Romero Sr., 5'8, 210, RS
DT: Brandon Bittar Jr., 6'5, 340, RS
DE: Joe Bradley Sr., 5'10, 190
OLB: Connor Gallagher Sr., 6'2, 190, RS
ILB: Cooper Yorke, Sr., 6'1, 200, RS
OLB: Dante Roberto Sr., 5'9, 185, RS
CB: William Bradley So., 5'7, 145
CB: Connor Hills Jr., 5'10, 155
SS: Zach Corrado Jr., 5'8, 170, RS
FS: Brandon Gallagher Jr., 5'10, 155
K: Cooper Yorke, Sr., 6'1, 200, RS
P: Cooper Yorke, Sr., 6'1, 200, RS
Head Coach: Jim Sharples, 9th season
Career Record: 23-51
Team Record Last Five Years:
Assistant Coaches: Jeff Schmidt (Defensive Coordinator/S); Matt Schmidt (OL/DE/Special Teams Coordinator); Gerard O’Donnell (Offensive Coordinator/QB/CB); Jimmy Lopez (LB/JV Head Coach); Matt Spader (WR/Freshmen Head Coach); Matt Fergusen (LB/OL/Freshmen); Ryan Azzolini (DL/Freshmen); Chris Grande (Athletic Trainer).
Player to Watch: Cooper Yorke, TE, Sr., RS
He is the Swiss Army Knife of the Jackson Liberty Lions being a key part of special teams as the kicker and punter and playing different roles in the offense. He has also played a key role at linebacker on the other side of the ball. Yorke will move from slot receiver over to tight end in 2021 and brings some size to the position as well, but more importantly good hands.
"Cooper is our best football player," Sharples said. "The tight end position is very important and not only is Cooper big and strong and can block, but we can widen him out a little bit and cause mismatches, maybe getting covered by a linebacker. Now we can have Dallas (Weisse) getting Cooper the ball. I think that 1-2 punch is going to be really helpful."
Player Under the Radar: Brandon Bittar LT/DT, Jr.
It's hard to miss a player who stands at 6-foot-5, but you'll want to look at the offensive and defensive line for this junior tackle. Bittar also slides over a couple of spots on offense after playing center last season.
Impact Newcomer: Jack Duke C, Sr.
Duke moves into the starting center position after Bittar slid over to tackle. Duke will have to play a key role in ensuring protection and opening holes for the retooled offensive backfield.
Top Position Group: Defensive Front Seven
Even though they surrendered 163 points in 2020, the defense over the last few seasons has been a strong point for the Lions. It'll have to vastly improve in 2021 to return to prior success and perhaps it can with the front seven heading out there this season. They have size on the line led by Brandon Bittar and newcomer Jack Duke and then at linebacker with players like Connor Gallagher and Cooper Yorke.
Big Shoes To Fill: Zach Corrado RB/SS, Jr.
Gian Libassi was one of Jackson Liberty's best in 2020 and prior to, both at running back and linebacker. He was the Shore Sports Network Player of the Week in Week 1 of 2020 in the Lions' 16-14 win over Toms River East, recording 12 tackles and 2 sacks on defense and running for 70-yards on offense while scoring a touchdown in the process. Corrado will have to step up in 2021 as he'll be getting a bulk of the carries on offense. He's one of the players tasked with trying to spark a struggling offense.
"Zack is a natural tailback and because of the triple option, he was out of his element for the last two years," Sharples said. "But when he got his hands on the ball, he made some big plays for us. He has great vision, he has great speed and he likes to run downhill."
X-Factor: Executing the new offensive system
If something isn't working the way you envision and you feel doing something else could improve the overall mission, perhaps it's time to pivot to that new option. In the quest to generate some offense and find offensive consistency, Sharples has made a change to the offense by going with a Pro-Style look for 2021.
Thursday, Sep. 2 -- vs. Point Beach, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sep. 10 -- vs. Point Boro, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sep. 17 -- at Barnegat, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sep. 24 -- at Asbury Park, 6 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 1 -- at Manchester, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 8 -- vs. Shore Regional, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 15 -- at Jackson Memorial, 7 p.m.