MILL CREEK — Last year, the Jackson football team had more star power than a summer blockbuster.
Timberwolves standouts like Jason Morris, Chris Chambers and C.J. Marsh were some of the most talented athletes Jackson coach Joel Vincent has seen in six years leading the program.
However, eye-popping individual talent didn’t translate into team success, and lofty preseason expectations turned into disappointment when Jackson’s defense struggled mightily and the team finished 4-5.
This year, Morris, Chambers, Marsh and others are gone, but Vincent’s not worried. In fact, this Jackson team is more unified and balanced up and down the roster than ever, Vincent said.
“I think we’re fine. The makeup of this team, both mentally and physically … I think they’re much more together.”
New stars, such as junior quarterback and co-captain Chris Bowen, have stepped into leadership roles.
“(Bowen) has football smarts, in general he has a feel for the game,” Vincent said. “He’s a charismatic leader in the huddle.”
Bowen said he learned a lot from Morris last year and worked hard to earn his teammates’ trust.
“I treat everybody on the team with good respect,” Bowen said.
Opponents should respect Jackson’s ground game, he added. “We’re going to have an overpowering running game.”
Senior Johnie Kirton headlines the Timberwolves’ ground attack. At 6-feet-3, 248 pounds, Kirton will be tough to bring down. After working mostly as a lead blocker at the fullback position last year, Kirton will get more carries as a halfback.
“It’s time for him to step up and take a bigger part in the offense,” Vincent said.
For the offense to succeed, Bowen will need to keep opposing defenses guessing with his arm. Describing himself as a pocket passer, Bowen said that won’t be a problem.
The quarterback’s top receiver is junior Richie Tri (6-0, 171), who transferred from Cascade High School and didn’t play for Jackson last year.
Bowen and Tri have played sports together since they were young, so communication is a cinch.
“We’ve got chemistry,” Bowen said.
As for the defense, Vincent recruited an expert to rebuild Jackson’s glaring weakness into a strength. Mark Kreutz has been coaching high school football for 26 years, including previous stints as an assistant at Jackson, Cascade and Marysville and five years as head coach at Shorewood.
Last spring, Kreutz installed an attacking, aggressive system with four lineman and four linebackers.
“It’s a philosophy that fits our kids,” said Kreutz, who played defensive back at the University of Washington from 1973-75.
Bowen, who has practiced plenty against the new alignment, called the reworked D “more speedy.” Vincent and Kreutz said Jackson defenders grasped the new scheme quickly, and applied it well by shutting out several opponents at the Western Washington University camp in late June.
Tri, who is also a captain and a defensive leader at free safety, said the change is good.
“We’re quicker on the (defensive) line now,” he said. “I still think our defense will be a weakness but we’ll be better than last year.”
Jackson puts its revamped defense to the test at 7 p.m. tonight in its season-opener, a non-league contest at Anacortes. As for league action, Vincent tabbed Mariner and Kamiak as Western Conference favorites, noting that Shorewood and Edmonds-Woodway have both improved.
“Top to bottom this year, our league is pretty strong,” he said.
Kirton and sophomore Travis Snider (6-1, 235) will line up at defensive end, highlighting Jackson’s considerable speed and athleticism as bookends up front. Snider led the Timberwolves in tackles as a freshman linebacker last year.
Senior Steven Body heads up the linebackers from his outside slot. Despite his relatively small 5-9, 175-pound frame, Body compensates with all-out effort every play, Vincent and Kreutz said.
Jackson has another diminutive-but-competitive defensive star in 5-5, 140-pound cornerback Emmanuel Baah.
Baah, who stepped into a starting role mid-way through last season, is “a fearless kid,” according to Vincent. “You have to look past his size, because he has … heart and smarts.”
A 40-inch vertical leap doesn’t hurt, either.
“(Baah) sees no limitations to his ability,” Kreutz added.
That same positive attitude might carry over to the entire Jackson team, which appears ready to erase last season’s disappointment.
“We’ll be in the playoffs this year,” Bowen said. “People think Jackson has lost too much. They’re mistaken.”