By Jerit Roser // Louisiana vs. All Y’all
Editor’s note: This outlook is part of a series of region previews. Most regional teams are included. However, some may be missing due to schedule conflicts. We will add other teams as soon as we can.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to loom as large as any storyline in a New Orleans high school football offseason already full of plenty of its own.
Players and coaches have now spent most of this year navigating varying degrees of health concerns and precautions, as well as tragic losses such as legendary McDonogh 35 coach Wayne Reese.
And, on the practice fields, even reigning state champions such as Rummel and Edna Karr have struggled at times to wade through unprecedented bigger-picture uncertainty as they try to focus on potential title defenses — whether they officially kick off on schedule or at a later date.
“It’s been a ton of distraction, so you’ve been battling a lot extra on top of the distractions that can already come with a championship and things that come with it,” Rummel coach Nick Monica said. “You’re giving out rings when you’re doing offseason weights. And you’re ready to turn the page and look forward to next year and start getting ready, and you’re dealing with that, which is a good thing but is a distraction at times.
“And then as soon as you’re getting close to having spring football and getting the new guys ready, this whole thing hit. We were fortunate we were able to have our guys meet at least once a week with our position coaches and go over some football. But especially defensively we replace nine starters, and these guys need the reps and the practice time. So everybody’s gonna be behind. And I know for us, personally, we really could’ve used these practice reps.”
District 9-5A (Catholic League)
2019 champion: Rummel Raiders
Biggest challenger: John Curtis Patriots
Even a historically dominant defense needed late heroics to help lift Rummel to Catholic League and Division I championships in 2019.
The Raiders do return some key pieces — headlined by running back Logan Diggs, quarterback Kyle Wickersham and linebacker Kolbe Fields — but will have to replace nearly an entire defense of college signees.
“The defense, one of the reasons that they were so fantastics last year was the experience,” Monica said. “I think seven of those 11 kids on that defense were three-year starters, so they knew what we were trying to accomplish as far as X’s and O’s -wise and knew their assignments and how to do the job together.
“And I think this year is kind of the opposite. We have very little experience, especially on defense. We do return six starters on offense that are gonna have to be leaders, and we’re gonna lean on them heavily until everybody else can catch up. But I think a positive is that we’re going to have quite a few one-year starters, seniors, on the field. It’s not gonna be like two or three years ago where we have six sophomores and a freshman. We’ll have upperclassmen out there. They just don’t have much game experience.”
Rummel needed a second-half comeback and a defensive stop on a two-point conversion last October to provide perennial power John Curtis for the division crown.
Even with some key departures of their own, the Patriots figure to be among Louisiana’s elite again this season with defensive back Caleb Spann and defensive tackle Elinus Noel III among the well-known returners.
Former Abbeville, Chalmette, East Jefferson and Hahnville coach Dominic “Nick” Saltaformaggio returned to his alma mater, Holy Cross, this spring to lead one of the state’s most talented lineups.
The Tigers feature three of Louisiana’s top 35 prospects for the 2021 recruiting class, per Rivals rankings, in Northwestern-committed defensive end Barryn “B.J.” Sorrell, Arizona-committed safety Kolbe Cage and Tulane-committed running back Jaden Handy, as well as experienced quarterback John Dade Wooton and electric pass-catcher Jalen Johnson.
“I think it’ll be just as tough as it usually is,” Monica said. “I think a lot of schools are returning some key pieces. Brother Martin lost 10 on defense, but they’re returning almost their whole offense. I think Holy Cross has as much talent returning as anybody in the district. St. Aug had some really, really good and talented young players last year that are coming back. Curtis is obviously always good. They seem to not miss a beat every year. And then Jesuit, from what I understand, is gonna be picked toward the top of the league, so it’ll be extremely challenging. Hopefully we can use the first three or four weeks to kind of grow up a little bit, get some experience and get ready for district.”
2019 champion: John Ehret Patriots
Biggest challenger: Chalmette Owls
John Ehret scratched its way through District 8-5A undefeated in 2019, but will have its work cut out for itself for a potential repeat.
The Patriots narrowly escaped Chalmette, 35-34, and L.W. Higgins, 14-9, with Riverdale and West Jefferson also sticking within 15 points.
Coach Marcus Scott has departed to take the reins at Destrehan, with running backs coach Reggie Rogers taking over the lead role.
And key players such as Patrick Jenkins, Brandon James and Ja’Ron Glenn have graduated.
But Alabama safety commit Kaine Williams and Memphis linebacker commit Andrew Jones takes over among the next stars for a program that annually produces SEC and Big 12 talent, with tight end prospect Y’Quann Townsend among other notable players to watch.
“When I started to focus on safety when I got (to high school), it was like everything fell into place,” Williams said. “Like what (my stepfather) was telling me was I’d be playing behind (LSU linebacker signee) Donte (Starks), and we had a couple of cats, like Pat, (TCU defensive line signee) Earl (Barquet), (Southeastern Louisiana defensive end signee) Eldridge (Walker) and a couple of them out there playing college ball. He said if I go out there and do what I’ve got to do, then I would be just like them by the time I’m graduating and leaving. So it’s just like everything fell into place and what he said has become true.”
Northwestern State wide receiver target Tyrone Irving and cornerback Ke’Malice Anderson highlight Chalmette’s returning starters.
And SEC defensive end recruit Javon Nelson of Riverdale is another of the district’s top players.
2019 champion: Edna Karr Cougars
Biggest challenger: Landry-Walker Chargin’ Buccaneers
Another year brings another loaded Edna Karr team.
The Cougars became just the fifth football program in LHSAA history to win four consecutive state championships with this past December’s 35-34 survival of rival Warren Easton in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
And coach Brice Brown’s team returns a slew of notable pieces to contend for a fifth straight that would tie the John Curtis run from 2004 to 2008.
“Always,” said rising junior defensive tackle Tygee Hill, an LSU and Alabama target. “That’s a pillar of our program is the leadership. It’s a brotherhood, so you want to lead your younger brothers to be where you are. Maybe they’re coming in there to chase what you have.”
A.J. Samuel figures to succeed Nicholls State signee Leonard Kelly at quarterback.
And the talented rising sophomore will enjoy another explosive Karr receiving corps with which to work, led by 2021 LSU and Florida State target Destyn “Fatt” Pazon — the state’s No. 6 prospect for the class — and 2022 LSU target Anthony Anderson.
Louisiana Tech commit Kenneth Bannister — Louisiana’s top-ranked tackle for 2021 and No. 14 prospect overall — leads the offensive line, while Hill and defensive back Destin Refuge are among the most experienced returning players on defense.
Landry-Walker was the only District 10-4A opponent to stay within one score of the Cougars in 2019.
Tennessee State quarterback commit Justin Howard, Louisiana Tech wide receiver commit Cyrus “CeeDee” Allen, McNeese State target Travis “Milly” Walker Jr. and Louisiana-Lafayette and Houston linebacker target Joshua Bertholotte headline another talented Chargin’ Buccaneers group.
Recent Missouri State commitment Khari “The Jet” Fields of Helen Cox is another top name to know in the district, while Belle Chasse hopes the experience earned by several younger players in 2019 will help provide a solid foundation.
2019 champion: Warren Easton Eagles
Biggest challenger: G.W. Carver Rams
A failed two-point conversion with 1:09 remaining left Warren Easton just short of Edna Karr in the Class 4A state championship game.
And Eagles coach Jerry Phillips minced no words afterward that the program returning to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the first time since 2014 accomplished no goal and that he expects to be back soon and to celebrate a different outcome.
“A lot of people are excited about getting back to the Dome,” Phillips said. “This is my first time here, so many of you guys don’t know too much about me. It’s not the goal. The goal is to win. Right now, honestly, we’re no different from the team that didn’t make it to the Dome. You understand what I’m saying? We didn’t win the game. We didn’t hold up the trophy. We’re not state champs… We want to win championships.”
Departed stars such as offensive lineman Sedrick Van Pran (Georgia) and running back A’Shaad Clayton (Colorado) and returning standouts such as Texas-committed wide receiver Casey Cain and rising junior defensive lineman Shone Washington, an LSU and Alabama target, have echoed their coach’s sentiments throughout the offseason.
“The mindset now is basically championship or bust, because we’ve been there now two years in a row and came up short,” Cain said. “So anything less than a championship isn’t really worth anything.”
Running back Alred “Dash” Luke, defensive tackle Sidney Humble, defensive back Ramond Stevens and defensive ends Jirrea Johnson Arman Ellis are among the other most notable names on another talented Easton roster.
“Our goal will always be the same,” Washington said. “We really want that ring on our finger, because we hadn’t won a championship in I don’t know how long. So we’re focused on that goal. But right now, as a team, we’re putting in work and getting better.”
G.W. Carver played the Eagles to within a 20-18 final in easily the district’s most competitive matchup in 2019.
And the Rams, led by electric receiver Lynarise Elpheage Jr., figure to be the top threat again in 2020 in a cast of challengers that also includes Eleanor McMain and John F. Kennedy.
2019 champion: McDonogh 35 Roneagles
Biggest challenger: Sophie B. Wright Warriors
New head coach Frank Daggs Jr. has been excited to see his McDonogh 35 players back together in any capacity to begin summer workouts.
And after losing the Louisiana coaching legend in Reese, the Roneagles were finally granted some much-needed initial steps of returning to normalcy.
“It’s been tough the last couple of months mentally on everybody, because you think about us, you think about coach Reese being there 12 or 15 hours a day and doing everything around there,” said Daggs, who had served as Reese’s long-time right-hand man leading the program. “Most of the kids, they came back, and they’d been working out with their personal trainers or friends. None of our coaches were able to see them, so it was funny seeing them (last) Monday morning walking in. Some of ‘em had gained 20 pounds, and some of ‘em had lost 20 pounds. So it was ups and downs from a physical appearance, but it was good from a mental part, because everybody felt like we’re back again.
“And we had a conversation about trying to get back to the Dome for him, or get back to the playoffs. We fell one point short to Jennings. But everybody’s got him on our minds coming back. We’ve gotta do it for Coach. That’s how we want it. “
The St. Augustine and Nicholls State pointed to a reliable offensive line and talented defense full of returning standouts as the early calling cards for the reigning District 10-3A champions.
“The strongest part about our team this year is gonna be our offensive line,” Daggs said. “We return a two-year, all-state guy in George Jackson that blocks everybody in the dirt, and he was one of the first ones back and ready to go. So that was a good thing.
“Also, defensively, we have (linebackers) Tariq Jones, Jamarian Henderson and David Ellis. That’s probably three of the top guys in the state at their positions, and we have the whole defensive backfield coming back. So everybody should be good in those parts. The receivers are gonna be new. The quarterback’s a new starter, but he’s been in the program for five years, so he knows what to do and what not to do.”
McDonogh 35 outscored its four league opponents by a combined 163-39 last fall, with only Sophie B. Wright managing to stay within 25 points.
The Warriors, led by multi-sport standout Trevontay Alford at quarterback, again figure to be the Roneagles’ primary threat in a district with Frederick A. Douglass — formerly KIPP Renaissance — and Abramson Sci Academy
But Daggs and company appear poised to be among the top contenders again this year hoping to knock-off state champion and still-favorite St. James.
2019 champion: De La Salle Cavaliers
Biggest challenger: Kenner Discovery
De La Salle returns several of its own top players from another of the area’s best teams in 2019.
And what coach Ryan Manale loves about this year’s group is its character and leadership — particularly with so many challenges and distractions surrounding this summer and potentially the fall as well.
“I am very optimistic with this team,” Manale said. “This team has a chance to be the most successful team that we put on the field and in the classroom. This is a group of seniors, which is a big group of seniors, and the GPAs are amazing. The character of these kids is truly amazing. And then the top superstars that are being recruited to play to just about any school in the nation in Montrell Johnson and Ja’Marian Peterson and John Martin, they are such humble kids and very accountable and do the little things that we call the De La Salle way. I couldn’t be more proud of those guys and where they are. We don’t know what the season’s going to look like, but we’re super excited because these seniors could be as good as any leaders we’ve had in any of my years at De La Salle.”
Peterson, a defensive end ranked Louisiana’s No. 28 prospect, defensive tackle Trey Hand and linebackers Shamar Keelen and Jude Millford lead another strong defensive front.
Johnson, ranked No. 25 in the state overall, and Martin have already established themselves among the state’s best running backs and guards, respectively.
And the continued progress and comfort of rising junior quarterback Cole Millford should continue to open up the Cavaliers’ offense.
“I think he’s matured as a quarterback,” Manale said. “He has not played the quarterback position for very long. I thought last year he did a very good job of managing the offense. And I’m hoping for this year going into junior year he can become that offensive coordinator on the field and really still manage the offense, but also be able to do more as a skilled quarterback. And there’s no doubt, I think, we’re going to see a lot of improvement after one year of truly understanding the offense, what worked, what didn’t work, facing adversity and managing and still guiding the team to a state championship appearance last year.”
2019 champion: St. Charles Catholic Comets
Biggest challenger: Isidore Newman Greenies
St. Charles Catholic survived Isidore Newman, 28-27, last fall to claim the District 11-2A title en route to a Division III state runner-up finish.
“Our schedule is really, really tough,” coach Frank Monica said. “We have De La Salle, which was a double-overtime game for us last year. We were very, very lucky to win that game. I mean, that was a battle. We had East Ascension, who actually defeated us, because they’re a big, powerful team at a big 5A school. Then we had Newman in our district. And then we get into the playoffs and had Episcopal, who is an excellent, excellent football team.. and then the double-overtime game against Catholic-New Iberia to get to the state championship.
“So we had some things go our way last year to have the year that we had. But our schedule could actually flip on us and turn on us this year. That’s a little concerning. We lead off with South Lafourche, who’s gonna be a lot better because they were very young last year. And then week to week, we’re gonna have our hands full.”
The Comets finished 4-0 in 2019 in games decided by three points or less.
And, as Monica mentioned, the same schedule presents similar challenges that could just as easily return less fortunate outcomes in rematches of such tight contests.
St. Charles hopes to see another stingy defense and reliable kicking game rise to the occasion to lead the way.
“For me, it always starts with our defense,” he said. “I’ve always felt like you build your defense first, because if you can’t stop anybody, you can’t win. So, we’ve got some kids returning on defense led by a guy by the name of Mandel Eugene, who’s a great linebacker for us already committed to Tulane. He’s a special athlete with quite a future, and he’s a leader on defense. We lost Mason Narcisse to ULL, a big defensive linemen who was a senior last year, but we do have seven returning starters on defense, so that’s gonna help out.
“So, offensively, what’s going to be key is we have a five-man, rotating offensive line, and we’re not real big up there and we don’t have any experience up there. We have one guy up there that had some playing time, but the rest are really, really inexperience, and we’re smaller than we’ve been. So we’re gonna have to take some defensive guys and move them over into spots, and we don’t know who can do anything — especially right now — so they’re gonna get a real cliff-note version of offensive football.”
Newman, meanwhile, figures to have one of Louisiana’s most exciting offenses, led by rising sophomore quarterback Arch Manning and a slew of playmaking weapons.
“I think Arch has really worked hard on his own film study,” coach Nelson Stewart said of former NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning. “He’s obviously got a great network in his family. He’s used those resources to really better himself. Before even getting to the Zoom (meeting) aspect, he’s grown a lot physically. I feel like he’s been on a two-year growth spurt. It’s crazy right now, but last year he was about 6-0, 6-1 and 165 pounds, and now walking in after the pandemic, he really is 6-3 1/2, 195 pounds. He’s almost unrecognizable. I think it has everything to do with his work in the weight room.”
The Greenies will have to replace record-setting wide receiver Jarmone Sutherland Jr., who begins his college career at Dartmouth.
But prototypical outside receivers in rising junior A.J. Johnson and rising sophomore Makai Donaldson, rising senior slot receivers John Charbonnet and Pike Philibert, a versatile fifth receiver in Chris Hunter, second-team all-state tight end Will Randle and senior running back Joseph Pleasant give the young passer plenty of options.
“And those are just some of ‘em, so we’re excited,” Stewart said. “And I think while you hear so much about Arch, for good reason, he’s got great chemistry with his wide receivers. He’s been able to work with them this offseason and develop that, and we’re excited to get going.”
2019 champion: West St. John Rams
Biggest challenger: Riverside Academy Rebels
West St. John remains among Louisiana’s elite smaller-school programs.
But after a pair of postseason disappointments since its 2017 state championship, coach Brandon Walters said the silver lining to a three-month shutdown forced by COVID-19 was an opportunity for further introspection before regrouping in June.
“Not being able to do our spring traditionally, it hurt, but everybody’s on an even playing field, so we won’t feel the sting of it too much,” Walters said. “Those three months or so that everybody was kind of off and away from everything, it kind of gave me some time to reflect on the goods and the bads, what can be changed and what can be fixed, so I was able to get some things done with that time off… And now because we’re able to get back to it, the guys are kind of falling back into their routine.”
Kailep Edwards, already with Mississippi State among his notable college offers, will play a versatile role in the defensive front seven between line and linebacker positions.
And Edwards and fellow rising juniors Jason August, Jacob Ellis and Jacoby Lewis give the Rams the potential for one of the best defensive fronts in Class 1A.
“We’re gonna be really stout on defense,” Walters said. “That’s where most of our guys are returning. Although we do have some weapons that are returning offensively as well, our bread and butter is pretty much on the defensive side right now. Most of those guys are returning starters from last season, so we’re gonna lean on those guys heavily. We’re gonna try to stop people as much as we can and still be able to put some points up on the board.”
Quarterback Ferdinand Young and versatile weapons Kejean Kendrick and Troy Jasmine are among the early leaders on offense, with West St. John still looking for some fresh faces to step into additional roles in hopes of once again fending off Riverside Academy, Country Day, St. Martin’s and Ecole Classique.
“We’re still trying to solidify some of that,” Walters said. “So we’ll work out the kinks and see who really wants to play and who wants to battle for it, and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”