The 2020 campaign was one Russell was looking forward to after climbing an uphill battle over the past three seasons.
Since taking over the helm from the legendary Ivan McGlone in 2014, T.J. Maynard’s Red Devils have recorded only one losing season, 2017. It was the season injuries and lack of depth forced freshmen Nathan Conley and Ethan Sharp to be inserted into the primary rotation while receiving on-the-job training.
In 2018, Charlie Jachimczuk entered the mix as a sophomore while splitting time at quarterback with Grant Wilburn. After the Red Devils’ worst start under Maynard (0-3), Russell rebounded for an 8-5 finish after falling in the state quarterfinals to Louisville Central, 26-0. Conley led the Red Devils’ rushing attack with 118 carries for 615 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The 2019 season saw the Red Devils’ maturity and experience take the next step to returning Russell to a powerhouse in Class 3A football after a 9-3 finish. A healthy dose of Conley paced the Red Devils to the tune of 1,438 yards on 242 totes while reaching the end zone 15 times. Malakai Anderson was second to Conley with 127 carries.
But Jachimczuk and Sharp became significant contributors to the offense as well. The then-junior quarterback scampered for 627 yards and eight scores while the shifty Sharp tallied 259 yards and four touchdowns.
Now, the wait for the Devils has become unnerving.
“Our kids are chomping at the bit,” Maynard said. “Obviously, last season we had a nice season and a nice run — last couple of years, actually. That’s something we are trying to build on. With this group, we have a lot of guys back that have a lot of experience and we are going to lean on that. As a coach, when you have a lot of guys who have played for you, you hope that plays into your favor.”
Maynard admitted he plans to lean heavily on this season’s senior class.
“The whole senior class has a lot of guys who have played a lot of football for us,” he said. “Charlie (Jachimczuk), Nathan (Conley) and Ethan Sharp all get the headlines because they played for us as freshmen. There are a lot of other guys who have some experience and we are hoping that plays out for us. It’s going to take time.”
One of those other guys is Chase Snedegar. Entering the 2019 season, Snedegar was running neck-and-neck with Conley with a level of physicality that Maynard loved. However, the injury bug that had chased Snedegar since his freshman season bit again, ending his season before it started.
With the loss of Anderson to graduation, Snedegar could provide a solid addition to the Russell backfield, with Conley once again leading the way. Although Conley is poised to once again be the workhorse for the Red Devils, he quickly deflects any praises toward his offensive line.
“I have to give it all to them because if there weren’t any holes, I wouldn’t be able to run the ball,” Conley said. “They’ve done a great job blocking all the years that I’ve been here and I think they will do an even better job this season and I’ll have an even better season than I did last year.”
Conley has his sights on turning in his best season ever, but a goal of beating out big brother for second on Russell’s all-time rushing list might be out of reach. Nick Conley tallied 4,529 yards on 726 carries in his four-year career. As for the younger Conley, he would need 2,040 yards to take over big brother’s spot in the record books.
Regardless of how close Conley gets to Nick’s number, Maynard pointed out a huge difference in touches during each player’s freshman season. Nick’s 202 were the most of his four years, while Nathan’s freshman year saw only 45 carries.
While it’s no secret Russell’s bread and butter is running the football, Jachimczuk’s progression in the offseason is his ability to take his game to the next level, the coach said.
“He’s really changed his body the last couple years,” Maynard said. “He’s worked hard this summer and has really taken a leadership role while working on what he needs to work on. It’s easy to go out and do the things that you do well, but he’s worked on his throwing mechanics and his feet. That’s been his biggest thing, a lot of technique stuff.”
Jachimczuk used the additional time off due to COVID-19 restrictions to help better his game.
“The time off has helped me develop my body more,” he said. “I wasn’t that big last year, I admit. But this year, I’ve been lifting more and hitting it more just from the motivation from last year and hoping to open up the pass game.”
Maynard believes Jachimczuk’s progression as a quarterback will help the Russell offense open up its playbook a bit and even give teams a much different look when they line up defensively.
“This year, his progression as a passer will allow us to do so many things,” Maynard said. “Last year, we were more of a full-house backfield, with double tights (ends). But that’s what fit our kids. I think this year you will see a lot more open, trips, ace, doubles, that type of thing because we want to spread people out and take advantage of what Charlie can do.”
Conley believes the ability to add in a legitimate passing attack can actually make the rushing attack even better.
“Teams would look at us and say they could just stack the box on us and stop the run,” Conley said. “We did a pretty good job of still gaining yards, but with the passing game, we can spread them out more and open more gaps so we can have big plays.”
Defensively, Russell lost its top two leading tacklers to graduation in Brayden Pack (57) and Ethan Sanders (56.5). Also gone will be two key linemen in Frank Jeffery and Felix Reyes who played in all 12 Devils outings. With the defense taking a big hit on the line due to graduation and a shortened number of actual practices to bring the replacements up to speed, Maynard said the learning curve has to be addressed in a rapid manner. But regardless of the number of practices available, the standards remain the same.
“Our expectations never change,” Maynard said. “Obviously, there are years that you have more talent than others. Sometimes your path is tougher than other years. Sometimes you can have one of your best teams and the path just doesn’t line up. We want to build on last year, but we believe we have a team that can make a run come playoff time. There are some really good teams in 3A, but we feel like we can compete with those guys. It’s up to us to go out there on Friday nights and prove it.”