76ers' running game again will be key
In keeping with tradition, the Independence High School football team expects to bring another potent rushing attack to the City League-South Division this season. But the strategy likely will be somewhat different.
Last season, the 76ers relied on the league's top rusher in 2013 graduate Vincent Rambo, who gained 1,905 yards on 203 carries and scored 20 touchdowns. Naijae Manning, who rushed 97 times for 705 yards and 18 touchdowns, also is gone.
This season, four sophomores are competing for playing time.
"We have to run the ball at Independence because that's what we do," said coach Maurice Douglas, who begins his fourth season Friday, Aug. 30, against visiting Northland. "We've got four of them and you hope somebody rises to the top."
Ronnie Kuipers provides speed. Kevon Jones is an elusive runner. Kaavon Parker and C.J. Harrison run "low to the ground and they're a little more aggressive," Douglas said.
Those who will open the holes up front are all seniors in Andru Gerula, Phillip Wimbley, Malik Blackwell, Akeem Mitchell and center Carlos Jones.
The offense also will feature senior Iman Lowery, who caught 11 passes for 158 yards a year ago at tight end. Coaches want to get him the ball as much as possible.
Seniors Jemiah McNeal and Eriq Shaw will start at wide receiver.
At quarterback, senior Anthony Bange moves to the position from receiver.
"We're not as talented as we were last year at the skill positions, but I like the fact that last year's team set the tone for where we're trying to go," Douglas said. "We've got a veteran bunch, but they're a veteran bunch who didn't play a lot."
Independence finished 6-4 overall last season and went 4-3 in the City-South to finish fourth behind Marion-Franklin (7-0), Walnut Ridge (6-1) and Eastmoor Academy (5-2). The 76ers have improved every season since Douglas took over in 2010. That year, Independence went 3-7. In 2011, it finished 5-5.
"Last year we lost games to Eastmoor (14-6) and Marion-Franklin (36-30) by a touchdown a piece," Douglas said. "Those losses kept us out of the playoffs in Division III, which is loaded this year. You've got teams like Marion-Franklin who've moved (down) into that division. The bar has been raised high for this group."
The defense must also find leaders with Shaw and McNeal new at safety. Seniors DeAntae' Townsend and James Dukes-Johnson are returning starters at cornerback. At linebacker, Blackwell will anchor the middle of the 4-3 scheme with senior Jashon Crimley, Mitchell, Wimbley, Jones and Gerula rotating along the line.
Bange started at linebacker last year, but "we're trying to get him off the field" on defense, Douglas said.