ELLIS — There’s a clean slate for the Railroaders.
It might not be by design, but the loss of several key players to graduation from a year ago has forced it.
Still, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare.
“We said that as coaches,” said head coach Craig Amrein. “It’s like a fresh start, in a way. This is what we want the young kids coming up through our program to be like, the type of football player we want them to be like.”
One of the biggest changes will be at quarterback. Easton Smith graduated and led a potent passing attack in 2016. He threw for nearly 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns while being intercepted only four times.
Gone, too, is the running back combo of Clay Feik and Dalton Hensley, who combined for more than 1,000 rushing yards and 11 TDs for a team that went 4-5 and just missed out on the Class 2-1A playoffs.
That means a lot of the offensive responsibility will fall on the shoulders of senior Joseph Eck, who will be transitioning to quarterback. But it will be a familiar position for him.
“I feel like I am (ready) because I played it all through little kids and through junior high too,” Eck said.
“He brings a lot of things to the table at quarterback,” Amrein said. “He’s definitely a fast kid, pretty physical. We’re liking what we see out of him thus far.”
Eck carried 70 times last year while amassing 369 yards and scored three TDs.
“Last year, I was our backup, so I knew all of our plays for every position,” he said. “It’s really not too much of a jump.”
Amrein will rely on running back by committee offensively with the loss of the talented backfield from a year ago.
“At quarterback, it will be Eck carrying the ball quite a bit,” he said. “I told our guys we’re going to kind of be running back by committee. We have three or four guys who are trying out for it. No real burner or anything like that. They are meat grinders. I told them they are going to get hit, get hit every play. Just forward lean and give us a few yards.”
The Railroaders will rely on the ground game this year, and then throw in a few passing plays here and there to keep the defenses honest.
One of the top targets in the receiving game will be senior tight end Ryan Herl.
“We’re going to be running a lot more than last year,” Herl said. “Joseph has a good arm, but nobody is Easton. We’re going to need the hands out there. Certainly me and Geoffrey (Soneson) will be out there as receivers, and we’ll have some other good receivers out there as well.”
Herl had eight catches for 132 yards and one score in 2016, while Soneson scored on two of his four catches.
“We’ve got low numbers, but there’s a lot of potential,” Herl said. “We’ve got a lot of young bodies coming in. Numbers are low as usual, but we’re working really hard. This is one of the hardest working teams I’ve seen.”
Amrein said staying away from turnovers and injuries will be crucial.
“Offensively, we have to eliminate turnovers,” he said. “We have to have patience, understanding we can break one at any time but being patient with the game plan. Defensively, our linebackers have got to really step up. There’s only a few of them there. When I look at the whole picture, it’s depth. If we start getting guys hurt, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Herl will fill one of the linebacker roles, and Eck’s athleticism will allow him to play as a linebacker and defensive back. The summer growth of Cade Lewis also is expected to help the defense.
“Herl is really looking good,” Amrein said. “He’s 6-3, 220 pounds, and he’s looking great at linebacker. Cade Lewis, as a sophomore, didn’t play much at all. All of a sudden he grows 6 inches and puts on about 30-some pounds and looks like a linebacker. He’s stepped up quite a bit. And we have Joseph Eck, who’s kind of playing a strong safety/linebacker role and all over the field. He’s looking good there, too.”
Eck was the team’s top tackler last year, finishing with 63 total tackles. Herl is the next top-returning tackler with 38 last fall.
“The key is us going to stay positive,” Eck said. “And keep working hard throughout the season and encourage these guys as much as you can.”
Ellis last made the playoffs two years ago before losing to Meade in the first round.
This year, the Railroaders will face La Crosse, Oakley and Plainville in district play. Plainville finished as state runner-up in 2016 but lost some key playmakers, although Amrein expects the Cardinals to be the favorite again.
The Leopards and Plainsmen are in a similar boat to Ellis after losing key seniors.
“I’m sure those other teams — La Crosse and Oakley — are saying the same thing as us,” Amrein said. “This thing has opened up. Plainville looks great still. I know they lost some great players, but they’ll be a great team and have some good leaders there. I know Oakley didn’t have the best season last year, but they’re right in the thing. La Crosse is right in the thing. It should be fun in districts.”
Ellis won its first three games last year before losing five of its final six games — including losses to Plainville and La Crosse in district action. The Railroaders beat Oakley, 61-40, to close out the year.
“Coming No. 1 or 2 out of our district isn’t a bad thing,” Amrein said. “The way we match up with the other districts, we’re in a pretty good spot.”
But it will be the middle portion of this year that will begin a tough stretch once again. Ellis will play its first two games at home.
In Week 5, the team travels to Phillipsburg, followed by Smith Center at home before district play begins. Two of the team’s district games are on the road — La Crosse and Oakley.
“The middle part of our schedule is just nasty,” Amrein said. “We’re going to Phillipsburg, then have Smith Center, then come right back into district play. The schedule is not set up well coming right before district play, which will be tough, too.”
Despite the tough schedule, the players know a playoff spot is attainable.
“We want to get back to the playoffs,” Herl said. “We were there a couple seasons ago, and we had a similar looking team then. I really think we can do it. Everybody is really working hard.”