Brock Netter, Staff Writer
Let’s take a quick flashback to the 2019 football season.
Eight area teams qualified for the state playoffs — Jackson, Adena, Paint Valley, Southeastern, Waverly, Minford, Wheelersburg and Symmes Valley. We witnessed one classic game after another, an OHSAA record was tied, and multiple players put themselves on the map as the next wave of talent throughout Southeast Ohio.
We’re hoping for a repeat, and then some, in 2020.
Before a new football season kicks off, we’ve compiled a list of 20 players throughout our coverage area — which includes the SVC, SOC, FAC and SHAC — to keep an eye on this season.
NOTE: These are NOT rankings. The athletes are not listed in any specific order.
20. Byrd Green | Receiver | Unioto
Much of Unioto’s attack last season was centered around the running game of Jamarcus Carroll, and understandably so. But when the Tanks decided to throw, Green was the go-to target. He hauled in 20 catches for 351 yards and three touchdowns, all of which were team highs. He’s the only returning receiver that scored last season, so his experience is more valuable than ever as Unioto ushers in a new receiving corps. With young talent and a new head coach, Green will still be the top guy on the outside.
19. Johnny Burton | Receiver | Piketon
The SVC’s leading receiver is back in the fold after hauling in over 30 catches and 600 yards alongisde five touchdowns. The scary part about those numbers is that he was just a sophomore when he put them up. Now, with a couple of years of experience under his pads, he’s not a secret anymore and Piketon isn’t going to sneak up on anyone. But if the Redstreaks are to have their best season since 2016, Burton will need to take his game to another level.
18. Josh Ferguson | Running Back | Symmes Valley
Down by the river, the Vikings ended a postseason drought and made the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Additionally, they were SOC I champions and Ferguson was a massive reason why. The 5-foot-10 junior ran for 1,111 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, powering his team to a 9-2 mark, SV’s winningest season since 2011. He’ll get the rock as much as he wants it this fall.
17. Brayden Campbell | Running Back | Northwest
Unless you’ve lived under a rock since last August, it’s impossible to not know what Campbell did last year against Green. He racked up 366 rushing yards on just 19 carries … and scored nine touchdowns. NINE. It tied an OHSAA record for touchdowns in a single game. But his season wasn’t limited to just that one magnificent performance as he averaged 12.1 yards per rush, ending with 1,398 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground. Now entering his junior year, Campbell leads a running attack that is amongst the best in Southeast Ohio.
16. Ty Perkins | Receiver | Valley
Despite being a freshman last season, Perkins made quite the splash for the Indians. Valley suffered through injuries at the quarterback position, but the 6-foot-3 rising sophomore still managed to haul in 34 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns. Valley’s 5-5 mark was its best since 2015. Now, with his team healthy, Perkins’ job will be a little easier to manage. Expect big things from him.
15. Marcus Whaley | Quarterback | Westfall
It’s quite possible that Whaley is the most underrated player in the SVC. He’s been a receiver, a defensive back and has split time at quarterback before taking over for good last season. Making the most of his time under center, he threw for 817 yards and piled on more than 10 touchdowns while completing just under 60 percent of his throws for the 4-6 Mustangs. Now, with some experience and a full season under center ahead of him, we’ll really see his talents shine.
14. Ethan Rogers-Wright | Quarterback | Washington
Despite Washington’s receivers primarily being sophomores, Rogers-Wright is the senior general that makes the Blue Lions go. Quite possibly the most underrated player in the area, he threw for 1,682 yards and 22 touchdowns as his team finished 7-3 in 2019, just missing the playoffs. Washington has finished 7-3 in the three of the last four seasons, yet hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010. Although the team has a brutal schedule with Waverly, Adena, Wilmington and Jackson in the middle of its slate, it’s not impossible for them to pull off multiple “upsets” with Rogers-Wright leading the way.
13. Cavan Cooper | Quarterback | Paint Valley
While Cooper only has a few games of experience under center, he showed flashes of what he’s capable of last season. Playing in the Bearcats’ final four games, he threw six touchdowns, three of them coming in the team’s playoff loss to Grandview Heights, while running for two more scores. He was thrown into the fire as a freshman and now he’s the general of a new era of Paint Valley football under new head coach Corey Dye. The rest of the SVC has been warned that it’ll have to deal with a star in the making for the next three years.
12. Phoenix Wolf | Receiver | Waverly
Waverly has a chance to be the best offense in Southeast Ohio, and Wolf is a major reason why. While his counterparts Will Futhey and Zeke Brown attract most of the attention, that leaves the 6-foot-3 Wolf open and left with single coverage, which is a nightmare. Ask anyone on Waverly’s team who has improved the most and Wolf has been the answer. He’s a big play waiting to happen and has the chance to be the X-factor in what could be the best season in Waverly’s long history.
11. Jake Gregg | Quarterback | Wheelersburg
There’s no such thing as a rebuild in Wheelersburg. It’s simply retooling and moving forward. While the Pirates went through three different quarterbacks last season, they got a nice boost with Gregg transferring in from Ashland Blazer (Ky.). As a junior, Gregg led the Tomcats to a 10-3 record, including playoff victories over Greenup County and Russell before falling to eventual 3A state champion Belfrey in a regional final. He threw for 1,111 yards and 12 touchdowns while completing 64.4 percent of his passes. If his stats this fall resemble anything close to those numbers, Wheelersburg won’t miss a beat.
10. Preston Sykes | Quarterback | Adena
Slowly but surely, Adena is beginning to build itself a tradition of playoff football. After missing the playoffs for six straight seasons, the Warriors have played in Week 11 in back-to-back years. Sykes has been right in the middle of that movement. He threw for over 1,000 yards and found totaled 20-plus total touchdowns as a junior. He was just as instrumental defensively as he was a second-team All-Ohio selection as a defensive back. Adena now enters this season as the favorite to win the SVC because of its amount of returning talent. That group is led by Sykes.
9. Treylan Davis | Tight End | Jackson
As the leader in Jackson’s receiving room, Davis has an upside that only a select few in the state have, hence why he’s signed with West Virginia University. Rated as the No. 1 tight end in the state, the 6-foot-5 standout was primarily used as a blocker and didn’t get many touches last season. But when the ball was in his hands, magic happened. He hauled in seven touchdown catches, including three in a playoff contests against Centennial and Jonathan Alder. With Jackson losing its top four running backs from last season’s 11-1 team, expect him to be targeted much more this season and to show why he’s going to play on Saturdays in the Big 12.
8. Levi Gullion | Quarterback | Piketon
If you want a gunslinger who has no fear about making any pass at any point, Gullion is your guy. As a sophomore last season, he led the coverage area in passing with over 2,300 yards and 24 total touchdowns, 19 passing and five rushing. In addition to a year of experience under his belt, his top three targets return to the gridiron as well. Piketon has its sights set on an SVC championship, one the ‘Streaks have been craving since 1997. This year could be the team’s best shot at capturing the crown.
7. Isaac Little | Quarterback | Unioto
Last season was the first time Little took snaps under center. And despite Unioto missing the playoffs for the first time in three years, Little held his own. He threw for 775 yards and eight touchdowns while completing more than 50 percent of his passes. Additionally, he added just under 600 rushing yards with six touchdowns. Now with a year of experience, more responsibility and a new system under new head coach Matt Hoops, Little is poised to be better than ever and the best Tanks signal caller in quite some time.
6. Elijah Vogelsong | Quarterback | Minford
Vogelsong is a playmaker. It’s as simple as that. No matter what the situation is, as long as he’s on the field, Minford always has a chance to win. He finished last season with 1,597 passing yards alongside 16 touchdowns. But his legs were equally as dangerous as he racked up 769 rushing yards alongside nine more scores. Back for his senior year, he has one more chance to lead the Falcons on a lengthy playoff run before to Marshall University.
5. Mikey Nusser | Running Back | Southeastern
Although Lane Ruby garnered most of the media’s attention last season, and understandably so, let’s not forget just how dangerous Nusser was in the backfield. As part of an offense that scored over 44 points per game, Nusser was a bruiser who trucked his way to 822 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns while earning third team All-Ohio honors. There’s still a ton of experience at SE this season and Nusser leads the way. Don’t sleep on the Panthers as they try and defend their Gold Ball.
4. Kam Smith | Quarterback/Receiver | Chillicothe
Smith was a complete Swiss Army Knife for the Cavaliers on the offensive side of the ball. He started the season at receiver and lined up at running back at times before taking over quarterback duties after multiple injuries. However, he was dynamite with the ball in his hands, no matter where he played, and scored five rushing touchdowns alongside throwing two additonal scores. Whether he’s under center or on the outside, as long as the ball is in his hands, good tend to happen.
3. Jayden Lebeau | Running Back | Miami Trace
Lebeau was a major reason why the Panthers went from 2-8 in 2018 to 5-5 last season. He was the team’s bellcow in the backfield and delivered when called upon. Just a sophomore, Lebeau racked up 130 carries to the tune of 1,165 rushing yards alongside 20 total touchdowns. Don’t expect his workload to be downsized at any point as the Panthers continue to trend upwards.
2. Jacob Winters | Quarterback | Jackson
Winters got the chance last season to show the Jackson faithful what it can look forward to for the next three years. He was spectacular. He notched a touchdown in four different ways: passing, rushing, receiving and punt return while intercepting four passes from his safety position. This year, he’s faced with the task of replacing a multi-year starter under center. But when he’s taken snaps in big moments, he’s handled himself like a seasoned veteran. He has the chance to be the next big thing, not just at Jackson, but in Southeast Ohio.
1. Haydn’ Shanks | Quarterback | Waverly
Earlier, we discussed Phoenix Wolf and the impact he could have for the Tigers. But the receivers can’t catch the ball without a capable quarterback. It just so happens that Waverly possesses one of the best in the region. After throwing for just under 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns on a torn ACL, Shanks is fully healthy, which should scare the rest of the SOC and Division IV. Armed with quite possibly the best receiving core in the area, the Tigers are on a mission to make a deep playoff run. A healthy Shanks is a major key to do just that.