Division I linemen don’t come along every day at Danville. Now the Admirals might have two at the same time, however, and a pretty good supporting cast to boot.
J.K. Howard and Michael Jones lead a talented group of linemen who give Danville its strongest unit on both sides of the ball.
They are the biggest building blocks in an offensive line that will form the foundation on which Danville hopes to build a more successful season after four straight years with at least four losses.
“It’s the key to our offense, and like coach Harp said, ‘We’ll go as far as the line will take us,’” Jones said.
That may be more true than ever this year as Danville turns to a triple-option offense to take advantage of its strength up front and a talented stable of young ball-carriers.
That makes the work of Jones, Howard and their teammates critically important to the Admirals’ success.
“Our entire offense is built off our line, and it starts with us,” Howard said.
That’s fine with Howard and Jones, who say they don’t mind the added responsibility.
“It’s pressure, but I like the pressure, and I like stepping up to the plate,” Howard said.
“It also keeps you in check, because if you don’t do good then it’ll show, obviously, and if you do it’ll obviously show, so you know whether or not you’re performing,” Jones added.
There is no doubt as to what these two massive men can do. Danville coach Sam Harp said they have not only the size — Howard is 6-4 and 275 pounds; Jones is 6-2 and 300 — and strength, but also the desire to do their jobs well.
“A lot of times you see big guys that are just nice, and you say, ‘If this kid had the body that other kid’s got,’ or you see a big kid and you say, ‘If he just had that mentality to go out there and get the job done and lay it on the line,’” Harp said. “These two guys have that mentality, I think. They both want to do well, they both are good practice players, they demonstrate good effort in the weight room, they’re good students.”
Their success to this point has not gone unnoticed. Jones already has a scholarship offer from Wofford, which led Division I-AA in rushing last year, and Harp said bigger schools are also looking at both Jones and Howard.
Howard says he “can’t wait to go play college, and I hope, Lord willing, that I’ll get to play.” Jones, on the other hand, says he tries “not to give it that much attention.” Both say they won’t truly turn their attention to college matters until after this season.
The last Danville lineman to earn a Division I scholarship was Josh Jaggers, a 2001 graduate who played at Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky. Others who played for Harp include Chester Ford (Tennessee), Chase Harp (Kentucky) and Nathan Fuqua (Wofford).
But while Jones and Howard appear to be the stars up front this year, a host of other players has fortified the offensive and defensive fronts in a way that rarely happens at schools of Danville’s size.
Senior Elliott Porter has already established himself as a force for the Admirals, and seniors Sabe Ruggles, Antonio Baca and Patrick Grizzell, junior Trevon Sandifer and sophomores Jerred Perry and Will Kirk are also expected to see significant action on offense or defense or both this year. (Harp isn’t ready to name starters just yet.)
“We’ve had some good linemen in times past, but it’s good that we finally get them here,” Harp said. “Usually at a small school you wind up with a couple of guys that can play pretty good up front, and it’s kind of nice to get them all together in a class for a change.”
On offense, Jones will return to his left tackle position, while Howard moves from the right side to center.
“It’s a big change, but I like it,” Howard said. “It’s for our offense, to help us. A lot of defenses we go up against this year will run the 50, and I guess (Harp) feels and I feel that I can take the nose guard.”
Jones said the way the Admirals run behind the two of them will depend on the defense they face.
“It just depends on who we play. If we’ve got a stud on defense, then he’ll probably line us up so we can get that hole open, but he likes to balance us, too,” Jones said.
He said he thinks the offense will maintain a balance as well.
“I see us running the ball more than we pass, but I also see us passing more in some situations depending on the team we play,” Jones said.
No matter how they do it, Harp said he likes Danville’s capability to move the ball and to stop opponents from advancing on them.
“Obviously if you can’t win the game up in the trenches with the offensive and defensive lines, then you’re going to struggle throughout the game. That’s going to be one of our strong suits this year,” he said. “We have a good shot to be a good ball-control type of offense, and I think we’ll be tough to stop. But at the same time, defensively is where we may wind up being better overall.”
Strong lines give Harp one reason to be upbeat about the coming season, though not the only one.
“Practice has been good, and I feel pretty positive about these guys. They’ve worked hard, they’re very coachable,” he said. “I feel very good about our guys.”
Danville at a glance
Coach: Sam Harp (25th year, 267-68)
Class and district: AA-7
2011 results: 8-4, lost to Somerset in second round of Class AA playoffs
Aug. 17 x-Simon Kenton 8:30
Aug. 25 LINCOLN COUNTY 8:15
Aug. 31 at Boyle County 7:30
Sept. 7 CORBIN 7:30
Sept. 14 SOUTHWESTERN 7:30
Sept. 21 at Green County 7:30
Oct. 5 SOMERSET 7:30
Oct. 12 at Middlesboro 7:30
Oct. 19 LEXINGTON CHRISTIAN 7:30
Oct. 26 at Frankfort 7:30
x-at Lincoln County
Top Returning Players
Devonta Alcorn, Sr., QB-LB-S
Jadarius Brown, Sr., RB-LB
Olyjawan Ford, Jr., RB-LB
Jawan Grey, Jr., RB-DB
J.K. Howard, Sr., OL-DL
Damir Karapandzic, Sr., K
Michael Jones, Sr., OL-DL
Elliott Porter, Sr., OL-DL
Akeem Ray, Sr., OL-DL
Trevon Sandifer, Jr., OL-DL
Has changed: Danville has made a habit in recent years of giving up big numbers to some of the best teams it plays, but those days may be over. The Admirals have averaged 37.1 points allowed in their 19 losses since 2008 and have given up 43 or more points nine times in those four years, but Harp said evidence he has seen in the offseason points to a much better defensive team this season.
“Defensively is where we may wind up being better overall,” Harp said.
Needs to change: Alcorn has shown flashes of greatness during his time as Danville’s starting quarterback, but few believe he has been all he can be. The Admirals don’t need him to throw for 2,000 yards or run for 1,000, but they do need him to be the player he looks like he can become and the leader that a veteran quarterback should be.
“Devonta hasn’t fully established himself as a go-to guy yet. But from what I’ve seen of him this offseason, his worth ethic, in the weight room, in spring practice, I think he’s going to be one of our main cogs,” Harp said.
Emerging players: The next generation of Danville running backs is largely unknown, but that might not be the case for long. Players like Brown, Ford, Grey, Ace Ray and even a handful of sophomores will carry the pigskin behind the big offensive line.
Their collective numbers should be good, but don’t look for any of them to put up huge numbers individually. The workload figures to be spread among several players unless one among them breaks out.
Underrated player: This could be a big year for Brown, whose biggest impact last year was on defense but who also figures prominently in the Admirals’ rotation of running backs.
Outlook: All indications say this is a better Danville team than the ones that have lost four or more games in each of the past four years. They are strongest in the area where strength matters most — line play — and they have talent sprinkled throughout every other unit as well.
On one hand, it’s easy to imagine Danville as one of the best teams in its class, one capable of competing for the AA championship. On the other hand, it’s possible that it could again get tripped up by very good Lexington Christian and Somerset teams, finish third in its district and face a hard road in the playoffs as a result. But the Admirals are due to go deep into November again, and this looks like a team that could take them there.
— Mike Marsee