VANDALIA – Don’t let the lack of big names fool you.
That’s the message Vandalia football coach John Stout and his players are hoping to send to their South Central Conference opponents this season, as the Vandals take on an underdog role after losing 11 seniors from last season's playoff team.
“We do have experience coming back, even though they weren’t starters,” Stout said. “Any time you can get the young kids in a varsity game on Friday nights (as we did many times last season), it will help you down the road.
“In the first game, a lot of guys will walk out there a little bit nervous, but it won’t really be anything new for them.”
Offensively, the Vandals lost four starting offensive linemen, all but 194 of their 3,450 rushing yards, all but 15 of their 393 receiving yards and their starting quarterback.
The one returning starter on offense, senior lineman Jake Stone, said that it’s the work ethic of his teammates that will allow some of that production to be replaced by this season’s players.
“We have a lot of good players who are coming back,” Stone said. “We lost some people, but we still have talent that comes out and works every day.”
Defensively, seniors Tristin Long and C.J. Runkel are the top returners for a unit that allowed just 18.4 points per game last season, including two touchdowns or less in five games.
Otherwise, many of the players who saw action in the fourth quarters of almost every game last season will now be stepping into starting roles, and Stout is excited to see how they fare.
“These guys have some skills, but they aren’t well-known,” he said. “The only people who really know what is going on with this team is this team.
“We did lose a lot, but we have guys with a lot of good character and who can do some things, but who got stuck behind some really good players last year.”
Runkel tore his anterior cruciate ligament in week nine last season, and had no roadblocks during his recovery.
“C.J. did a great job of rehabbing his knee,” Stout said. “He would lift in the mornings, and then rehab it in the afternoons.”
Now, the hardworking senior is ready get back to his role as a ball carrier and leading linebacker.
“It feels great,” Runkel said. “Every once in a while it has some pain, but I am always going to go out there, play as hard as I can and give it my all for the team.”
He will wear a brace as a precaution, but Stout said that he doesn’t expect Runkel’s production to be diminished.
Runkel had 21 solo tackles and 24 assists last season. Included were 4.5 tackles for loss, and he also blocked a kick, forced and recovered a fumble, and deflected two passes.
As the backup fullback, he had 10 carries for 36 yards and a touchdown.
“I think C.J. will do really well,” Stone said. “He’s worked hard to get back.”
The starting quarterback for the Vandals probably will not be announced until the day of the first game.
Junior Collin Nestleroad and sophomore Tucker Willms are taking equal reps in practice, and Stout isn’t ready to commit to a starter – and may use them both anyway.
“Both of them look good and bring different things to the table,” he said.
Nestleroad is the faster runner of the two and excels at running the option, while Willms has a better arm and is a stronger power runner.
The Vandals open the season with back-to-back games on the road, starting on Aug. 30 at Gillespie. Vandalia’s first home game in on Sept. 13 against Staunton.