PORTSMOUTH — The Portsmouth Trojans, and specifically senior quarterback Drew Roe, can throw swords and darts with the best of them —and seemingly score at will.
However, the Trojans’ key, of course, is stopping being bulldozed defensively themselves.
If Portsmouth plans on a bounce-back season, which would be a turnaround from its 2-7 coronavirus-impacted campaign, then the 48-man with 13 seniors Trojans —although putting pinball points up and eye-popping statistics are encouraged — still need to get defensive.
It’s a point of emphasis in which fourth-year head coach Bruce Kalb commented at length upon — during his media day interview inside Portsmouth’s Trojan Coliseum.
“I haven’t been very proud of our defensive performance the past three years. We as a coaching staff have made a cultural shift towards committing and stopping the run. It’s been our Achilles’ heel for a long time. It’s not at all for a lack of scoring points. We’ve always been able to score points, but we have to make sure we’re stopping people. At this point, we’re very hopeful that we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “Between a couple of staff changes to tweaks in the scheme here and there to just making sure we’re finding the right personnel. This is a year where we’re able to trot out juniors and seniors at every position. That helps out a lot, whereas last year we had a plethora of sophomores on defense.”
While Portsmouth replaced 10 defensive starters a season ago, Kalb said there are only one or two replacements on that side this season.
But, one of those is two-time Division V all-Southeast District linebacker Christian Keys, who was a first-team all-district defender two years ago.
The Trojans’ top two defensive returnees are senior secondary man Amare Johnson (63 solo tackles, 19 assisted tackles, four interceptions in 2020) and junior outside linebacker Reade Pendleton (65 solo tackles, 21 assisted tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery), as Keys —in seven games —chipped in 54 solo tackles with 20 assisted and six for loss.
Johnson is back at free safety, as senior James Thurman returns at linebacker alongside Pendleton and junior Brenden Truett.
“Those four, we’re really counting on making this defense go,” said Kalb.
“Being in a league (Ohio Valley Conference) that is probably 70 or 75-percent run, we’re doubling down on stopping the run, and even bringing a run-stopping mentality to both sides of the perimeter,” he continued. “If we’re going to be successful this year, it’s what we have to do. We haven’t had teams throw the ball over us, probably because they haven’t had to. But we can’t continue giving up 2,000-plus yards rushing and expect to be successful.”
Although, with the first-team all-district signal-caller Roe passing for over 2,500 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, the Trojans almost had that team success —despite defensive shortcomings.
Roe rushed for 225 yards as well, a season after throwing for 1,335 yards and earning all-district Special Mention.
The Trojans suffered five of their seven losses by a touchdown or less — a reversal of fortunes from their second consecutive 8-2 regular season and Division V Region 19 playoff appearance two years ago.
The most glaring was a 66-63 basketball-like shootout loss at Coal Grove, followed by the Trojans’ 21-20 playoff defeat at Northwest.
In between, there was an 18-12 overtime heartbreaking home setback against Gallia Academy.
“It was the tale of two years. The year prior (2019), we won five games by a touchdown or less and we found ways to win those games, and last year it was the exact flip. We are hoping to take our competitive nature of not giving up and add into that the element of eking out wins if we need to,” said Kalb.
Roe ran for his life often times last season, but made plenty of plays with his legs and completions with his arm.
“Drew broke a lot of our school records for offense, but he has never been complacent. He still knew there was and still is room to grow. There probably wasn’t a harder worker in the weight room to get better and stronger physically. But Drew wants to become more and more comfortable with the offense and what we want him to do. He seemed to be even more committed to that,” said Kalb. “He has made strides towards reading the defenses, both pre-snap and post-snap.”
Pendleton, a first-team all-district wide receiver, posted over 40 receptions for over 700 yards — and was clearly Roe’s go-to guy.
Despite the graduation losses of Chris Duff and tight end Michael Duncan, and in addition to Pendleton, Roe can throw to returning receivers Dariyonne Bryant and Donavan Carr —along with Valley transfer Jayden Duncan and six-foot six-inch Wheelersburg import Cooper Maxie.
Jayden Duncan’s uncle and former Portsmouth head coach Aaron Duncan is back on Kalb’s staff, as Kalb served as an assistant during Duncan’s years as the head man.
Pendleton primarily became an intermediate target for Roe, while the likes of Bryant, Duncan and Carr can stretch defenses vertically.
However, Roe needs time to throw, and his offensive line — despite four of five starters graduated — needs to dramatically improve.
Perhaps playing ironman football, per Kalb, can make that play in the trenches better.
Thurman, the center last season, is the only returning offensive starter.
“The line play hasn’t been what we’ve wanted it, but we’ve been in a constant rebuild phase. We graduate three or four starters at a time it seems like. As we address that, we need to make sure we develop those next guys up. That’s something that’s important,” said Kalb. “There are no more sacred cows. Guys are going to have to be in shape to play both ways and perform. We had a lot of one-way players up front.”
Speaking of one-job players, Portsmouth sports a pair of sophomore placekickers — soccer standout Zach Roth and all-around athlete on the female side Emily Cheatham.
Kalb said with noted newcomers to the Trojans, team chemistry is going to play a significant role.
“We have to commit to making each other better on Monday through Thursday to be our best on Friday nights,” said the coach. “I’m seeing that being embraced all grades nine thru 12. Our kids are very welcoming and kind kids, and everybody is welcome here at Portsmouth High School.”
But while welcoming is a warm feeling for the Trojans, they will still need to get defensive against their Ohio Valley Conference and three-game season-opening non-league schedule.
Portsmouth plays host to Valley for its season opener on Thursday night, before venturing over to archrival West — and hosting Cincinnati Deer Park.
Jason Sparks, the former Trojans’ head coach, is Deer Park’s offensive coordinator.
“I think the OVC is a tough league and it may be smaller schools, but it’s much tougher than what people want to give it credit for,” said Kalb. “Most of the games in our league are good back-and-forth four-quarter football games. It’s always good to see some evenly-matched teams go at it.”
But, of course and in the end, the Trojans want to win those close contests — although it’s going to take some stops while Roe gets another green light.
“The mentality that is reigning supreme in this locker-room right now is that we have a chance and we can beat anybody on our schedule,” said Kalb. “When you believe you having a fighting chance, you really in fact do. This team will compete from beginning to end in every game this year. That’s who we are and we will not expect anything less.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved