IRONTON —For the Ironton Fighting Tigers, the mission this season is indeed simple.
Finish the job.
After all, when you are the defending Division V state runner-up, and you have an early frontrunner for Ohio’s prestigious Mr. Football award, there’s just one thing left to do.
Of course, winning a state championship — which would be Ironton’s third in school history — is much easier said than done, as the tradition-rich Fighting Tigers under third-year head coach and former West standout Trevon Pendleton do have key components to replace.
But given the returning personnel on its 70-man roster, starting with Ohio State signee Reid Carrico, Ironton is indeed equipped —and is even counting on — another late fall trip to the state title tilt.
Last season, the Fighting Tigers put exactly 11 men on the all-Southeast District Division V unit —including seven first-teamers, as five went on to make one of the top three all-Ohio teams.
Four of those have graduated —first-team defensive lineman Seth Fosson, second-team quarterback Gage Salyers, second-team placekicker Avery Book and third-team defensive lineman Junior Jones.
But beginning with Carrico — the reigning Ohio Division V Defensive Player of the Year as selected by the Ohio Prep Sports Writers Association — these Fighting Tigers are still deep, still talented, still highly-touted and extremely high-profile.
He leads a strong group of returnees that make Ironton an odds-on, and no worse than an even-money, favorite for its second consecutive Ohio Valley Conference championship — with its eyes on the greatest prize of bringing home the state title trophy.
Carrico — the 6-3, 225-pound feature running back and linebacker — was quite the star of Ironton’s media day activities, although Pendleton put proper perspective on the situation.
The Fighting Tigers are more than just a one-man show — and in fact it’s ‘next man up’.
“We always preach to our guys ‘next man up,’ so there’s going to be opportunities to fill some voids this year and we’ve got a lot of depth,” Pendleton said.
While those names and jersey numbers will eventually be mentioned early and often this season, the surname ‘Carrico’ carries the most weight with Ironton in terms of the statewide stage.
Recruited to Ohio State as a linebacker, Carrico amassed 168 tackles last season, including 18 for loss with three sacks and four lost fumbles.
He recovered three fumbles, intercepted a pass and scored two defensive touchdowns.
The first Ironton player to ever be selected to compete in the Under Armor All-American contest, Carrico has been named to numerous major watch lists — not just in the state but throughout the entire country.
Carrico carried the football last season for 1,590 yards on 191 attempts, scoring 28 touchdowns including seven in the Fighting Tigers’ (13-2 overall) five playoff bouts.
“Reid is obviously going to be a big part of what we do this year offensively and defensively, but the key this year, we’re going to look a little different offensively than last year just based on personnel,” said Pendleton.
The Fighting Tigers must also replace Fosson at fullback and Salyers at defensive back —as Book was almost automatic on extra points and extra-dependable on kickoffs.
Cameron Deere (5-11, 185, sr.), who also earned first-team all-district linebacker alongside fellow three-year starter Carrico, split starting time with Fosson.
Replacing Salyers under center, however, has to be the Fighting Tigers’ most important position to replace.
The three-year starter Salyers signed with Youngstown State, and made his mark offensively as a dual threat runner and passer with a penchant for making big plays.
The current quarterback battle is largely between senior Will York (5-11, 170) and sophomore Tayden Carpenter (5-11, 175), although also in the mix are Wheelersburg transfer Aaron Masters (5-10, 150) and fellow sophomore Aiden Young (5-6, 130).
“The quarterback battle probably is our most open battle right now. Got a lot of guys who are capable of playing it,” Pendleton said. “That’s a good thing to have when you have multiple guys who can play and play it at a high level. It’s better than the years you have nobody.
A pair of senior wide receivers —Trent Hacker (6-2, 175) and Kyle Howell (5-10, 170) —are back, as Hacker had 10 receptions for 228 yards and three touchdowns while Howell had 16 catches for 215 yards and two TDs.
Howell will also likely punt and can kick field goals, as fellow senior Jimmy Mahlmeister (6-0, 165) is the likely replacement for Book — both on field goals and kickoffs.
And, Book provided an extra weapon for an Ironton defense that was already lights out —with Fosson and Jones on the line, Carrico and Deere at linebacker and Salyers, Hacker, Howell and all-district Special Mention honoree Collin Freeman in the secondary.
Freeman has also graduated — along with Salyers, Fosson and Jones — so look for Nate Cochran (defensive line), another Special Mention choice, to step in along with York (defensive back).
Another newcomer, Angelo Washington (6-0, 210, jr.), is considered a key addition along the front following his transfer in from Mississippi.
“We’ve got a lot of interchangeable pieces, but the thing that makes this defense the scariest is the team speed. You’ve got a lot of guys who can absolutely run and get to the football,” said Pendleton.
Indeed, depth and talent aren’t concerns for the Fighting Tigers, but making mistakes — such as too many personal-foul penalties — are.
Ironton, at times, has struggled with penalties —and the occasional impactful turnover.
And, in order to finish the job and capture that state championship, Pendleton said simply that Ironton can not beat itself.
“You’ve got to come out and play your ‘A-game’ every night and play solid football for four quarters and let the chips fall where they may,” Pendleton said. “I think if we go out and play and take care of business, we can play with anyone in the state. That’s our biggest focus, not necessarily on our opponents but on ourselves.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved