WILLIAMSPORT—The Williamsport Wildcats are not only a football team, but they double as a do-it-yourself project.
In a sense, coach Randy Longnecker and his staff now know how an interior decorator feels.
“We’re a small school and we have some pieces,” said Longnecker. “We are trying to find the guys who will step up to fill in the spots that are needed.”
It’s a task that falls somewhere between Extreme Home Makeover and rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The final answer will be the difference between welcoming home the Wildcats and just sinking.
The Wildcats have moved up to the Class 2A level, which takes away a large chunk of the margin of error when it comes to playoff implications. The 6-4 record that can get teams into the postseason on the 1A level will probably leave a team two wins short at 2A. And Williamsport has never received a 1A pass to the party.
Williamsport’s pieces are falling in different places this season. Gone are Reggie Russ, Williamsport’s workhorse, and dependable receiver Kemper Baker as two of the standouts from last season. The Wildcats have made a change at quarterback — picking up a strong receiver in the process — and will unveil an unknown commodity at running back, all in a spread-style offense.
“The spread isn’t my favorite, but it’s what gives us our best chance,” Longnecker said. “It’s a spread, but there won’t be as many formations and sets. We are going to simplify and do the things we do well and rep it to death.”
The give-and-take attitude comes as Williamsport hands the ball to sophomore quarterback Brandon Jackson to run the show. He replaces senior Tyler Wise, who struggled under center last year and has been moved to more naturally suited positions of split end and defensive back.
“He is a gifted kid and has worked hard to get a grasp of the season,” Longnecker said of Jackson, who won the start over junior T.J. Boyer after a tight competition. “Wise has been moved to the slot, which fits him because it brings out his athleticism, allowing him to go out and play and do what he does best.”
Boyer will be the backup, but will also play slot, which at times will put three players on the field who can throw the ball at any time. Jordan Palladino will also be a passing target.
The Wildcats will replace Russ with a bit of lightning and thunder in the backfield with new edition Theron Palmer at tailback and Alex Fridley, who has distinguished himself defensively, at fullback. Palmer is a speedster who moved in from Washington state, while Fridley will provide lead blocking and short-yardage carries as the fullback.
“Theron is one of the hardest working kids we have, but he is still learning the game,” Longnecker said. “He hasn’t missed a practice. I wish I had 100 of him. He will see the ball a lot. Fridley is an excellent blocker and gets off the ball quickly for a big man. He’s got ability, but he plays both ways, so we ask a lot of him because of his size and quickness.”
The protection will be provided by a multipurpose front line that also carries defensive responsibilities.
Zach Nalley checks in at center, while Josh Miller and Nate Downs will play key roles along with Ryan Minella, Matt McKinsey — who is battling a knee problem — and Reid Keplinger.
Since many of the names are the same on defense, the goal is to limit the time that unit stays on the field.
“We are going to stay in multiple sets with an attack style on defense,” Longnecker said. “We’ll come at people with quickness and good team speed. We want to come after the ball and get turnovers, which will help get the defense off the field.”
Fridley returns on the defensive line where he was all-county last season along with Nalley and Antonio Murphy. Brandon Starliper returns as the defensive end and “continues to improve every day,” according to Longnecker.
Miller and Downs will work at middle linebacker, but will be looking for help as Seth Gross, Palladino and Boyer need to work in on the outsides.
“Josh was all-county second team as a sophomore and Downs is a good run stopper,” Longnecker said.
Wise will lead the defensive backs with his ability to read and move quickly to the ball. “He has been a standout defensive back,” Longnecker said.
Palmer, Nick Berchock, Kevin Zeger and B.J. Savage will also work at defensive backs.
Wise will handle the punting duties while Kyle Marshall, a first-year player as a senior, will do the kicking. Williamsport did not score an extra point last season.
“I like Tyler back there punting because he had mobility and versatility to do things,” Longnecker said. “Kyle has shown the ability to kick, but this is the first time he’s come out to play. He has a good leg and can hit from 30 (yards),” Longnecker said.
With all the pieces in place, it comes down to finishing touches for Williamsport to have a winning look.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Longnecker said. “We’ve done well offensively and defensively in our scrimmages and I’m proud of the kids’ discipline and the way the older guys have taken the younger guys under their wings.
“They have to believe in how good they can be and we have to stay healthy. Everything has to jell early, but we won’t know how things will be until the lights come on Friday.”