STEUBENVILLE - Reno Saccoccia chose one word to describe his 2012 Big Red football team: raw!
"We have some talent, but it is raw with no experience," Saccoccia, who is entering his 30th year at the helm of the Crimson and the Black, said. "We have zero carries back at tailback and zero snaps back at quarterback.
"We have a lot of our front line back, but they have not been able to practice together because of illnesses or injuries."
A season ago, Saccoccia, who has compiled an amazing 302-53 record, referred to his squad as "green." That unit, however, rolled to a perfect regular season and won its first Division III playoff game before dropping a heartbreaker to Youngstown Cardinal Mooney.
In compiling the 11-1 mark, Big Red scored an average of 37.2 points per game, allowing just 10.7. It rolled to 386 yards an outing while holding the opposition to 196.
If the 2012 squad is going to match those accomplishments, Saccoccia knows there's lots of work to do.
(games at 7 p.m.)
Aug. 23 Woodrow Wilson
Aug. 31 Benedictine
Sept. 7 Bishop Timon
Sept. 14 Brooke
Sept. 21 at Massillon
Sept. 28 Westinghouse
Oct. 5 Ursuline
Oct. 12 at Morgantown
Oct. 19 Sir Wilfred Laurier
Oct. 26 Akron Buchtel
"On offense, we have to fix our line and get our tailbacks lots of reps," he noted. "The one place that I did not do a real good job of last year in preparing for this season was at tailback.
"Defensively, we are solid at linebacker and solid in the secondary. We've got work to do on the defensive line, but we have guys that are willing to do it and work hard."
Senior Corey Stinson and sophomore Trent Mays are locked in a battle for the starting quarterback spot. They are looking to replace Marcus Prather, who threw for 1,873 yards and 20 touchdowns in one season as a starter. Sophomore Robbie Agresta also is a candidate.
"They've been getting most the snaps," Saccoccia said. "I'm not in a real hurry to make a decision because once I pick a starter, that is who I am going to go with. We'll let it play out; let them get experience and the coaching they need. We're working them both with the first offense in practice and scrimmages."
Five players are in the hunt for time at tailback, a spot handled extremely well in 2011 by JoJo Pierro, who ran for more than 1,000 yards and 18 scores. The five are senior Teshawn Luke, junior Robert Hayden, junior Michael Jett, sophomore Donte Brown and sophomore Jamarty Wise.
"We have good speed at tailback and we have good toughness," Saccoccia pointed out. "We feel we have the players, we just have to coach them up. We are not going to have a true starting tailback. Hopefully, we will have two or three who can do the job because the top three also will start on defense. The same thing will be true at fullback."
Senior Dashon Redman is the top candidate at fullback. Joining him at the position are senior Make Cole, junior Kai McClurg, junior Garon Lytle, sophomore Dondre Brown and sophomore Kylar Davis.
Saccoccia is excited about the players he has back at the receiving positions.
"We have skilled players back there, five real good receivers," he pointed out. "Whatever quarterback we put in there is going to be able to get them the ball. We understand that and we realize we have to work on our running game."
Players in the mix at split end are senior Matt Petrella, senior Tajuan Lawson (who missed the 2011 season with an injury), sophomore Malik Richmond, junior Perrier Coleman and sophomore Lucas Herrington.
Petrella was third on the team in 2011 behind Pierro and Ohio State recruit Najee Murray with 21 grabs for 327 yards and for touchdowns.
Sure-handed senior Evan Westlake (15 catches a season ago) is among four players looking for time at flanker. The others are junior Bryan Pierro, junior Cody Saltsman and sophomore Brad Newburn.
Saccoccia said his team is "solid at the tight end position," adding "we need depth there because of the way we substitute offensively."
The top returner is senior Eric Robinson, who turned five of his nine 2011 catches into six points. Junior Arin Goldsmith is in the mix along with junior Cameron King.
All told, Saccoccia has six starters back on offense with several ready to anchor the offensive front.
Seniors Joe Nation and Luke McCourt return at tackle. They will be backed up by junior Jaylin Williams and sophomore Darien Evans.
Ryan Wood, another senior, is back at guard and will be paired with junior Chris Starlipper, senior Charles Keenan and senior Jeno Atkins.
Keenan also got some starts at center a year ago. Other candidates here are Nation, McCourt and sophomore David Lulla.
"We want to two-platoon as much as we can on both the offensive and defensive lines," Saccoccia added.
Senior Luke Smith will handle all the kicking chores for the Big Red. As a junior, Smith converted on 48 of 49 extra point tries and two of three field goal attempts.
Five starters are back on defense for Big Red including Petrella (safety), Redman (Mike linebacker), Luke (Will linebacker), Hayden (Sam linebacker) and senior Manard Reed (nose tackle).
The starting defensive ends will come from the group of senior Torre Carter, Robinson, King, Goldsmith, sophomore Devin Smith and sophomore William Harvey.
Keenan and Williams will see playing time at defensive tackle. Supporting Reed at the nose will be McCourt and sophomore Darrell Solomon.
Joining Redman at the Mike linebacker spot are McClurg and Donte Brown. Cole and Dondre Brown will support Hayden at the Sam position. Luke will get assistance from sophomore Branden Jones and senior Jerrick Shackleford at Will.
Luke was third on the team in tackles during 2011 with 60, trailing only Leshawn Luke and Murray. He also tied departed senior William Houst for the team lead in sacks with three.
Jett, Pierro, Coleman, Lytle and Wise are competing for time at corner. Jett had three interceptions a season ago to lead Big Red. Lawson, Petrella, Saltsman, Richmond, Newburn and sophomore Travis Wolfe will see time at safety.
"I was not real happy with the effort we had early in our 10-day camp," Saccoccia noted. "However, we have really picked it up and are doing better.
"Whenever you have a team that lacks experience, you almost feel like they improve at a faster rate and that's what we need to do is keep improving. Maybe the saying that nothing ever great is achieved without enthusiasm is true. We have enthusiastic, hard- working players."
As he prepares for his 30th campaign, Saccoccia said "I still enjoy it."
"I think that the emotions our assistants show help. Emotion is not something I need to have. My goal this year is to be more positive than negative."
When asked to discuss his coaching staff, Saccoccia was quick to admit "I've got a great staff."
"Our coaches are prepared to take assignments. They take it personal. There is never any down in our practices. Every coach and every player takes pride in what they're doing and the competition makes us all better."
Serving on the Big Red varsity staff are Bob Lamantia, Rick Camilletti, Dan Filtz, Jason Kernahan, Mike Haney, JoJo Saccoccia, Anthony Pierro, Gus DiMarzio and Josh Meyer. Filtz serves as the head junior varsity coach and gets assistance from Meyer and Nate Hubbard.
Joe Pierro directs the freshman team along with Justin Banks, Mike Blackburn, Matt Belardine and Jeremy Pressley. The Harding staff consists of Brian Mills, Brian Pruitt, Duke Jones, Donny Price, Matt Davis, Anthony DeFrances and Seth Fluharty.
Big Red opens its season Thursday when Washington, D.C. Woodrow Wilson comes to town for a 6 p.m. kickoff. Three new opponents dot the 2011 schedule including Buffalo Bishop Timon-St. Jude, Pittsburgh Westinghouse and Sir Wilfrid Laurier from Toronto, Canada. Cleveland Benedictine will provide the opposition in week two.
"I think it is a pretty tough schedule for a Division III football team," Saccoccia said. "I also think, however, that our coaches and players will be up for the challenge."
Tajuan Lawson, Corey Stinson, Matt Petrella, TeShawn Luke, Evan Westlake, Jerrick Shackleford, Dashon Redman, Mark Cole, Luke Smith, Manard Reed, Luke McCourt, Darius Hill, Anthony Leone, Charles Keenan, Torre Carter, Ryan Wood, Ed Wilson, Joey Nation, Jeno Atkins and Eric Robinson.
Bryan Pierro, Cody Saltsman, Camron King, Michael Jett, Robert Hayden, Perrier Coleman, Kai McClurg, Garon Lytle, Arin Goldsmith, Shaqun Fordham, Jaylin Williams and Chris Starlipper.
Trent Mays, Malik Richmond, Robbie Agresta, Aaron Richmond, Kylar Davis, Jamarty Wise, Donte Brown, Tevon Gary, Dondre Brown, Devin Smith, Branden Jones, Zach Burch, William Harvey, David Lulla, Jake Boni, Jalontay Johnson, Joey Mastroianni, Jaylin Smith, Darrell Solomon, Darien Evans, Oko Anyabwile, Jordan Gamble, Lucas Herrington, Bradley Newburn, Shakur Miller and Travis Wolfe.