Beneath the surface, there may be a shred of uncertainty about how good Indian River’s varsity football team will be this year, given that they lost 14 starters to graduation — including key offensive starters and contributors and nine defensive starters.
Despite those losses, Cape Henlopen’s new head coach Dave McDowell isn’t looking past Indian River in the team’s season opener.
“Indian River is a well-coached and highly athletic football team,” he said. “Their program has achieved a level that many others would like to be on. Coach Bunting and his staff have built a solid foundation, with strengths both offensively and defensively. I believe it will be a good game with hard hitting and sportsmanship.”
Indian River had 78 players come out for the school’s football program this year, and many of those players have worked their way up through the junior varsity program or made an impression as freshmen.
“We had sizable numbers come out for the team, so we have the depth. And I was real tickled with the group that came up from the middle school,” Bunting said, referring to the Selbyville Middle School program that has become a feeder program for IRHS. “They really come after people,” he said.
“Now we have to put all the pieces together,” Bunting added.
Offensively, Indian River has to replace four-fifths of the starting offensive line, three of four contributing running backs, a pair of wide receivers and a three-year starting quarterback. But Bunting and his staff are optimistic that the team will gel and can make a run at repeating as Henlopen Champions.
With senior Phillip Townsend making the shift from guard to split end, only senior right tackle Steve Alessi returns in place as a starter on the offensive line. But a slight Type 2 tear of his medial collateral ligament will also sideline Alessi for the next two to three weeks.
Following the injury to Alessi, Bunting and his staff gently nudged their burgeoning offensive line with somewhat of a challenge.
“Our line is kind of inexperienced, and Steve [Alessi] is kind of our anchor, just like Bryan Lynch was the year before and Frank Shockley the year before that. So, when Steve went down, we didn’t put pressure on them but we said, ‘It’s time for you to ratchet it up.’ They have to step up and play as a group.”
Senior tackle Mike Casale is currently filling in for Alessi and joins fellow senior and center Josh Hudson to replace Zack Mitchell. Junior tackle Ryan Blatzheim seems to have entrenched himself as Indian River’s left tackle. Senior David Roe, juniors Roy Bailey and Harry Tucker, and sophomore Luke Long are still competing for the remaining two guard spots.
“Right now, [offensive line coach] Ray Steele is trying out different combinations,” Bunting said. “They’re not dumb. They’re smart players. It’s just the matter of getting them some game experience on the varsity level.”
“They’ve done well in the scrimmages and a lot of them are tough guys — especially on defense,” Alessi said of his fellow linemen. “It’s that emotional thing that they’re going to have to go through next.”
If and when Indian River’s offensive line comes together, they’ll have a talented trio of new running back to block for. Seniors Dominique Morris (a Sussex Tech transfer last year) and Thomas Veith join sophomore Isaiah Phillips, giving Indian River a new dynamic from the running back position.
Last year, Indian River a pair of bruising tailbacks in Matt Williamson and Josh Gott, to go along with speedy Danny Veith. But too often they settled for shorter runs instead, because they just didn’t have the overall speed to break the long runs. Not so this year.
“Last year we’d get that [corner] block and only get 4 yards. This year, they can break it and go,” Bunting said. “This year we have three legitimate running backs, though they will have to mature enough to play varsity running back.”
“Some of these kids coming out of middle school are used to going east and west, and breaking an 80-yard touchdown run, and they need to learn that they can’t do that on the varsity level,” Bunting explained. “They have to learn to trust their linemen to lead the way.”
As for the rest of the lineup, Perry Townsend returns as Indian River’s fullback. Senior tight end Josh Hitchens joins Townsend to give first-year starting quarterback junior Nick Kmetz a pair of sizable targets to replace tight end Tyler Hastings and split ends Andy Bokinsky and Josh Dean.
Kmetz replaces three-year starter Eric Givans at the quarterback position, but Kmetz did see action at the position last year, giving him an advantage. Kmetz had two two-touchdown games in three starts and tossed five touchdown passes for the season, compared to Givan’s four touchdown passes.
Givans was replaced at quarterback after suffering an ankle injury and was shifted to wide receiver for the rest of the season.
In addition to being an accurate passer, Kmetz has the added ability to tuck the ball and earn a few yards on the ground when need be.
“Nick has a tremendous work ethic. And his father [assistant coach Paul Kmetz] was an ex-college coach and played college quarterback at Bucknell, so he (also) has the cerebral part of it. He reads [the defense] very well, and what he doesn’t have in height he makes up in other ways,” Bunting said.
“He’s worked very hard and, in my opinion, has similar arm strength to Eric. But he’s also not afraid to tuck it and go. He got powdered a couple times in the Milford and Caesar Rodney scrimmages, but he just got up — no complaining — got back in the huddle and ran the offense,” Bunting noted.
Defensively, Indian River is going to get playing time for as many players as possible. Aside from shifting Phillip Townsend from defensive end to middle linebacker, with his twin brother Perry, defensive playing time will be determined at the coaches’ discretion.
“Mike [Norton, defensive coordinator] is a big believer that you have to get kids that want to play game experience,” Bunting said. “There’s no better experience than game experience, and we’ve been blessed to have guys that we can put in and who won’t hurt us.”
“They have to have the belief that we trust them. And when they make a play or help out in support, it raises their confidence,” Bunting added.
“Hopefully, the older guys — the leaders — will lead these guys and pat them on the back,” Perry Townsend said.
Bunting said that by moving Phillip Townsend inside to linebacker, with his twin, “that opposing teams might think twice about running a dive straight up the middle,” despite the Indians’ loss of starting defensive tackles Bryan Lynch and John Cordeaux.
Sophomore linebacker Zac Kmetz saw part-time action on last year’s defense and, according to Bunting, like dozens of other players, Kmetz could work his way into a starting position.
“Those are the kids that you are going to need,” Bunting said. “They’re the guys that step up.”
Many players — including sophomore Danny Bokinsky, and juniors Jacob Balasus and Mark Ahlfeldt, among others — are jockeying for the vacant cornerback positions. Bunting has been impressed — especially at a recent practice.
“Right now, we’re rotating guys in. But Mark Ahlfeldt looked good in an in-team scrimmage,” he said. “Mark came up and powdered Perry on the 1-foot line, which I think sparked a couple kids, because they look at the Townsends as invincible.
Bunting went as far as to say that he may even use some freshmen players this year.
“Some of them will come up,” Bunting said. “We won’t be afraid to put those guys in on the field.”
Bunting believes that the loss of all the starters and key contributors to graduation won’t matter in the end, because there is such a strong sense of tradition at Indian River.
“I think there’s a sense that they don’t want to be the team that drops the ball. They want the Frank Shockleys and the D.J. Singleterrys to be proud of what they see,” Bunting said. “So we tell our guys to autograph their performance. ‘Do your best,’ and don’t be afraid to autograph their performance.”