Like many of its District 7-5A Division II counterparts, the Lovejoy football program will be in search of a new No. 1 signal-caller heading into the 2019 campaign.
While some programs will endure a lengthy search, the Leopards may have already found their answer.
Rising junior and multi-sport athlete Ralph Rucker, donning a lone white jersey in a sea of black and red at the program’s spring game last week, took the majority of the snaps in the scrimmage, throwing multiple touchdowns.
A prominent wrestler and baseball player in the offseason, Rucker also led the Leopards to a berth at the state 7-on-7 tournament later this summer in the team’s first qualifying event.
Though Rucker appears primed to take the reins from departing quarterback Carson Collins, who engineered a prolific career at Lovejoy, head coach Todd Ford said the rising junior’s work is far from over.
“We will tell [Rucker] as we meet with him this week that, if we played a game tonight, he’d be our starter,” he said. “However, the time between now and the first of September – we’ve got a long time between now and then. What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to continue to have a strong summer.
“… When you play the quarterback position, you can never have an approach of ‘I’ve arrived,’ No. 1, or, No. 2, that I know everything.”
Overall, the Leopards used their allotted workouts this spring to write the first chapter of a script they hope will allow them to maintain the upward trajectory Collins and the rest of the class of 2019 set them on. Last season, Lovejoy made an appearance in the area round for just the fourth time in school history.
To keep the momentum rolling, Ford said, his program will need to look inward and focus on the cultural aspects that allow a team to reload and regroup for runs year after year.
“We’ve lost a significant amount of production, but we’re returning a significant amount of production,” he said. “I think that kind of shows where you are in your program when kids are able to step up into roles, take ownership in those roles and really take that next-man-up mentality. It’s been really fun for us to see that develop [this spring].”
Helping in that transition will be several key returners, including rising senior linebacker Austin King on the defensive side of the football.
King will be a three-year starter in 2019 and will likely take on the role of linebacker Coleman Christensen, whose senior campaign last fall saw him become the de facto “quarterback” of the Leopards’ defensive unit.
“He had a really nice offseason and a really nice spring,” Ford said. “He’ll kind of take over the signal-caller role, defensively.”
Ford was also pleased with the springs of rising senior defensive back Quinn McDermott, rising senior lineman Tyler Beidleman, rising senior defensive end and long snapper Sean Sumners, rising senior offensive lineman Trent Robinson and rising senior M.J. Dear, among others.
Like the quarterback position, Lovejoy will graduate a preeminent threat in the backfield in Jahi Rainey, which Ford said has resulted in a more “by-committee” approach in the early going.
It will be a similar situation outside, he said, adding that he believes one of the things his program does well is replacing wide receiver talent and speed year-to-year.
As the calendar flips to the summer months and the Leopards prepare to move through summer workouts, Ford said the most important piece of helping this new crop of players find success is reinforcing that, while the school is looking to build a tradition of winning, each separate group has its own path to forge.
“They’ve always got to know that the 2019 Lovejoy Leopards are going to be exactly that – the 2019 Lovejoy Leopards,” he said. “We don’t need to be imitating others. We need to blaze our own trail and, to do that, I think it’s important that they stay grounded.”
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