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Football Preview: Mt. Vernon

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FORTVILLE — Nine wins in 12 games is a good season, right?

The 2013 Mt. Vernon Marauders finished 9-3, scoring 33 points per game and completing a two-year stretch during coach Doug Armstrong’s second and third seasons in Fortville with 20 wins – the most for the program in that amount of time in at least 20 years.

But it’s the way the season ended that’s driving the 2014 Marauders.

“That New Pal game was pretty bad, and it’s still sour in the mouths of the people who played in it,” said Dan Werner, a senior two-way starter for Mt. Vernon.

It’s hard to blame him.

Werner is referencing MV’s 33-0 loss to rival New Palestine in the sectional championship game, an especially brutal defeat for Werner & Co. considering a sectional straight sectional crown was on the line, and the result came three weeks after the Dragons blanked the black-and-gold at home in both teams’ regular-season finale, ensuring the Boundary Rail would return to southern Hancock County and also that Mt. Vernon would miss out on at least a share of a two consecutive Hoosier Heritage Conference titles.

“I don’t think we finished the way we wanted to. We could’ve easily gone further. We had the tools to do it, but it didn’t work out,” said Wyatt Gutierrez, another senior two-way starter for MV. “We were pretty disappointed. It did leave a bad taste in our mouth.”

The Marauders other setback was a 49-25 Week 3 loss to high-scoring Yorktown.

“It is what it is. We lost three games to two really good football teams. Both those teams were led by All-State quarterbacks,” Armstrong said, referring to the QBs at New Palestine (Blake Luker) and Yorktown (Riley Neal). “We didn’t have the firepower to score with them.

“I thought, as I look back on it, our defense needed to play better in those three games for us to win them. It’s a good season, there’s no doubt about it. We had a good defense, but we were just weak in the back end, and that got exposed from time to time.”

So, as the members of Mt. Vernon’s gridiron gang vowed for another championship run during a recent preseason practice, it was impossible be unaware of how differently this version of the Marauders will look to score points – out with the under-center, modified Wing-T offense, and in with a shotgun formation.

“We’ve definitely had to adjust. It’s definitely different – it’s foreign to us, kind of,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve really adapted to it and have accepted it well. We’re going to look good.”

The change is a function of necessity rather than choice; MV graduated four senior linemen with significant starting experience and received an influx of swift skill position players. But the biggest shift is at quarterback, where sophomore Pete Werner is the new starter and is primed to supply the offense with a legitimate run-pass menace.

“We have a quarterback who could be a dual-threat guy for three years. Pete can run; that’s his strength. He’s getting better at throwing the ball,” Armstrong said of the 6-2, 185-pound Werner. “We have receivers that we haven’t had in the past. It’s just what we think our team can excel at the most. If we have to change it again next year, then that’s what we’ll do.

“In college, they recruit to tArmstrong went on to utter 11 words that would’ve seemed crazy at this time last year.

“There will be very little under center,” he said. “It’s night and day.”

Pete’s older brother, Dan, will be the team’s primary play maker.

After playing tight end his first two years, Dan moved to running back last fall and was an immediate success, rushing for 1,058 yards and 6.2 yards per carry. Dan, with Division I scholarship offers from Ball State, Bowling Green and Northern Illinois to his name, is now shuffling back to tight end.

It’s safe to assume the 6-3, 225-pound older Werner will have more than six catches this season – a number that still led the 2013 team because of its run-first, run-second and run-third approach.

Senior Seth Christenson and junior Juwann Nelson add top-end speed to the wide receiver mix, with senior wideout Mason Harmon and sophomore H-back Mitch McCarthy due for large roles in the offense, too. Program newcomer Zach Spears (6-6, 225 pounds) will begin the season at tackle, but the senior will eventually see time at tight end as well.

With so many new faces, Armstrong is harping on minute-by-minute progression.

“We have to get better every rep, not so much every day,” he said. “We’re so young and inexperienced. We have to get better every rep because we have so many new people – and some have pretty good skill.”

Junior Jordan House, who gained 10.2 yards on his 22 carries last fall, is the primary ball carrier with senior Brayton Shannon (780 rushing yards, 6.4 YPC, 12 rushing TDs) out until at least Week 3 as he continues his recovery from a ruptured disc in his back. All-HHC RB Alex Lohman (1,115 yards, 15 total TDs) is now playing at the University of Indianapolis.

Joining Spears at tackle is Danny Stephens (6-2, 190). Gutierrez (6-1, 265), a returning starter, and sophomore Nick Anderson (5-10, 205) are the first-string guards. Junior Blake Slunaker (6-0, 265) is at center, firing off the first shotgun snaps in Fortville in quite some time.

“They’re tough kids. I’m really excited,” Gutierrez said of his new line mates. “I think they’re going to do a great job.”

On the opposite side of the ball, Armstrong’s faith in his defense is a little shaky at the moment.

“If I’m worried about something, I’m worried about defense. We have a really strong defensive line and a bunch of inexperience after that. Our defensive line should be really good, that should be the strength of our team,” he said. “Our linebackers will probably be sophomores and first-year starters. We’ll have sophomores and first-year players in the secondary.

“We really have no experience to speak of, except up front. Defense will be a challenge.”

Mt. Vernon’s starting front four of Spears, Gutierrez, Dan Werner and senior Lucas Rice (6-2, 265) will be a terror for opposing offensive lines.

Rice, a four-year starter, was the Marauders’ top sack man in 2013 with 12.5 QB takedowns. Rice also led the team with 118 tackles. Gutierrez and Werner combined for 114 tackles. So, while the graduation of all-conference lineman Tristan Blanton (106 tackles, 10.5 sacks) is certainly noticeable, the unit’s depth should win out.

In the back seven, things are far less certain for MV.

The linebackers – junior Jimmy Campbell and sophomore Nathan Seifert are slated to start on the outside with McCarthy in the middle – have little to none varsity seasoning. In the defensive backfield, only Pete Werner – the lone freshman to make All-HHC in 2013 – was a preseason starter in 2013. Werner, fourth on the team with 75 tackles last fall, will also have to quarterback a young secondary. House and sophomore Alex Barnett will man the corners with Harmon next to Werner at safety.

Armstrong and his squad open the season Friday against Class 5A Kokomo – the teams have split their past four meetings – before traveling to 4A Marion in Week 2. Mt. Vernon will be shorthanded in those matchups, as a few key players are suspended the first two games for violating school rules.

Short on experience but bursting at the seams with talent, the 2014 Marauders are looking to regain that championship feeling.

“We’re obviously always going to go for New Pal. We’re going to win as many games as we can. A sectional championship is a huge goal for us every year,” Werner said. “I feel our season isn’t nearly as good as it could be if we don’t win a championship. It was so much different in 2012. We won, had a great season and won championships. In (2013), we won a lot of games, but we didn’t win any championships, and it didn’t feel the same at all.”heir system; we don’t get that luxury here.” 

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