PREVIEW: Jacket football team ready for new season

Although the record book might not indicate it, last season was a step forward for the Waynesburg University football program. 

The Yellow Jackets finished the year a modest 4-6, but on the positive side, matched their combined win total from the 2016 and ‘17 seasons. 

In 2019, however, not a soul associated with the program will find any comfort in a four win campaign. 

For senior quarterback Tyler Perone, nothing short of a playoff berth– something Waynesburg hasn’t earned in five years– will be acceptable. 

“Obviously, I’d love to go 10-0, get a conference championship, move on to the playoffs… I’d love to do all that stuff, but that’s the max goal,” Perone said. “Nothing short of making a postseason appearance of some form will be satisfactory. There’s really no reason why we shouldn’t be able to get that done this year.”

It would be quite a story if the Yellow Jackets found a way to go through their schedule unblemished, with perennial powers Washington & Jefferson, Case Western Reserve and a Grove City program that’s appeared to have turned a corner lurking in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference. It isn’t unreasonable, however, to expect progress this season. 

Offensively, Perone is back behind center, and he has all 10 offensive starters from last season joining him. That includes second team all-conference running back Chad Walker and receivers Nick Moretti, Cole Booth and JaWuan Jones. Up front, the Jackets return one of the PAC’s best offensive linemen in 330-pound tackle Alex Paulina. 

The offense is a double edged sword, however. On one hand, it’s an experienced unit that is used to playing together. On the contrary, it isn’t a group that’s had a lot of success. Last year, the Yellow Jackets were ninth of 10 teams in scoring offense, finishing ahead of only Thiel, who went 0-10. While third-year head coach Chris Smithley acknowledged that having an experienced group has made for a smoother training camp, he knows that the offense being another year older doesn’t necessarily mean they are another year better.“At the end of the day, we didn’t score enough points last year,” Smithley said. “And that’s me being honest, me admitting that as a coaching staff. We didn’t score enough points last year to win some games that we could have won, and that was the same offense. They’re a year older, that doesn’t mean they’re 14, 21 points [per game] better, unless they do the work and put the time in.”

For the past few seasons, Waynesburg’s greatest asset has been on the other side of the ball. 2019 will be a year of transition for defensive coordinator Scott Venick’s group, however. The Jackets are losing several key contributors, including cornerback Justin Willkow, linebacker John-Glen Davis and safety Garrett Hepner. On the defensive line, aside from Cody Edwards, it’s a new group, but one Smithley is excited about. 

“Everybody else is fresh. They’re new,” he said. “They don’t have any experience. There’s going to be some learning curves there from those guys when we get in the heat of battle, but I also think that what we’ve seen in practice from a defensive line standpoint, we’re seeing some good things there.”

Although the Jackets lost several key contributors defensively, they are returning two of their best players in senior linebacker Tyler Smith and senior corner Brennan Sefick. Smith was a first team All-PAC performer last year and Sefick earned second team honors.

While Smith has undoubtedly improved his physical stature, putting on 15-20 pounds in the offseason, his challenge from a leadership standpoint will be using his voice along with his actions to get his points across to younger players. 

“I’m trying to work on being more vocal,  instead of just leading by example,” Smith said. “But overall I feel like I’m helping out the freshmen, trying to keep them on top of things and trying to get them in the right place at the right time. Just being a teammate, just helping them out.”

Waynesburg’s first game will be next Saturday, Sept. 7, in New Concord, Ohio, as the Yellow Jackets open with Muskingum for the eighth year in a row. Waynesburg has lost it’s last three clashes against the Muskies, which means nobody on the current roster has been a part of a Waynesburg team that started the season 1-0.

For both Smith and Perone, the Muskingum game will be essential in determining how successful their last ride with the program will be.

“I think it’s one of the biggest games of the year because it sets the tone on what we need to do for the rest of the season,” Smith said. “Coming off the past three years, losing the first game obviously brings everyone’s confidence down a little bit. I feel like coming out [and] getting a win, will boost everyone’s confidence.”

“We don’t want to start 0-1 going into Westminster [week two].” Perone said. “Westminster is a pretty solid team, they always will be… I think that for the team’s confidence, winning that week one game is ‘hey, you know what, this is the way we wanted to start.’”

It’s been four years since Waynesburg has had a winning football team, and Perone is confident that this year will be different from his first three. 

“We feel like we’re ready to do this,” he said. “We’re going to take this step this season to turn this thing around.”