MOUNT VERNON – Near the end of a three-hour practice last week, temperatures climbed to the mid-80s at Energy Field. Heat emanated from the black, rubber turf and hung in the air like a blanket as the Mount Vernon High School football team began its last phase of practice, an up-tempo scrimmage session focused on advancing the ball down the field as quickly as possible.
It wasn’t easy. Players stood with their hands on their helmets in between plays. One was found keeled over on the far end of the field.
“If you can’t go, then sub yourself out,” one assistant coach barked.
This is what culture change looks like, according to head coach Mike Kerr and his players. No pressure, no diamonds.
“They’ve been difficult, I’m not going to lie,” senior linebacker Harry Ogle said of the team's practices so far this season. “They’ve been rough. We’ve had some kids puking. But after it, we feel great. I mean, you feel like you accomplished something.”
Kerr is trying to initiate change in his third season as head coach, following a two-win 2016 campaign and a four-win season last fall. The Yellow Jackets placed fourth in the Ohio Cardinal Conference in 2017, two games behind Mansfield Senior, Wooster and Ashland, which all tied for first place.
While Mount Vernon went 4-0 against opponents who finished the season with a losing record, it went 0-6 against those .500 or better. The four teams Mount Vernon beat last season combined for six wins, with the winningest team being West Holmes at 3-7.
Kerr said that several of Mount Vernon’s losses last year were decided in the fourth quarter and that those losses can be partially attributed to not “understanding how to win.” Through a system of grueling offseason workouts and high-intensity practices, Kerr's goal is to develop a winning mindset in his team heading into the 2018 campaign.
“That’s what the big key is, and that’s a really big thing we’ve been working on all offseason is kind of that mindset,” Kerr said. “And I think that that’s what we’ve been missing, is that winning mindset and understanding how to win.
“I mean, it’s not that the kids don’t work hard and that they don’t want to win, it’s just understanding in that fourth quarter how to dig just a little bit deeper. How, when something goes bad in the fourth quarter, it doesn’t mean that all is lost. We can still make a play here or there. And I think that’s the biggest thing is the mentality.”
Kerr and his staff implemented ‘Be the Difference’ workouts this offseason, bringing players in early in the morning to conquer intense, team-building training sessions.
“They’re competitive workouts where they’re having to face a lot of adversity, but overcome it and do it early in the morning, when everybody else is sleeping,” Kerr said. “And after those workouts, we talked about a lot of that mindset and how they overcame things, and we’d do a lot of reflective things to try to help them understand, ‘What was it that got you through this workout? What was it that got you to win this competition?'
“We’re trying to get them to understand that that mindset is not a natural thing, you know. The default is to kind of just let things happen to you. So we’ve really tried to discipline their minds to, ‘Hey, you have the opportunity to control those outcomes.’ And like I said, it’s tough. I think we’ve done a great job with it, I think the kids have really bought into it.”
Mount Vernon will have to grapple with the loss of several key playmakers from last year's roster. Their starting quarterback, Jaxon Gregory, graduated and will play football for Marietta College this fall. He threw for nearly 2,000 yards last season and was named second-team all-conference.
Logan Tate, who was Gregory’s number one receiving target, graduated and will play for the University of Dayton this year. Tate accumulated 661 receiving yards and 359 rushing yards in his senior season, earning first-team all-conference honors. Kaden Daniels, Gregory’s second option who tallied 626 receiving yards last year, also graduated. Daniels led the team with nine receiving touchdowns.
The list goes on – Marcus Shellenbarger, who led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks, graduated and will play this year at Walsh University. First-team All-OCC lineman Josh Egan, who gave up just two sacks in his senior season, will play at Marietta.
“We had a ton of guys that really gave us a lot,” Kerr said. “And I think the biggest thing we’re going to miss is their game experience.”
Stepping up into the spotlight will be players like senior Noah Hubbard, who will likely take over as the starting quarterback. Hubbard started at linebacker the last two seasons and was the backup quarterback last year. Ashton Fisher, a senior who recorded 402 receiving yards and scored seven touchdowns last season, will highlight the Mount Vernon offensive attack.
“He’s a kid that we featured a lot down the stretch last year and I think that he’s going to really shine this year on offense,” Kerr said of Fisher, who will play more running back than wide receiver this year. “He’s one of those kids we’re talking about, getting the ball out in space and just letting him do something. He started on defense for us the last couple years and he’ll still play some defense. But we saw that with the ball in his hands, he’s just electric.”
Senior Devin Campbell will anchor the offensive line, a player who Kerr called “a really steady kid” and “a great leader.”
On the defensive side of the ball, senior free safety Isaiah Mickley will lead the way, coming off a second-team all-conference season in which he led the team with six interceptions and also recorded 73 tackles. Ogle will shift from outside to inside linebacker this fall while senior Mason Durfee will move from linebacker to defensive line. Durfee ranked third on the team last year with 76 tackles.
“I think we’re looking for guys that can step up and not necessarily fill their shoes athletically, but fill their shoes as far as leadership on the field and making the right decisions and understanding how to get us in and out of different things,” Kerr said of the team’s roster changeover. “I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge, is just having those kids that are ready to step up and take those leadership roles.”
The Yellow Jackets will stick with the spread, air-raid offense that they implemented at the end of last season, Kerr said. They will aim to get players like Fisher the ball in space and use their athleticism to their advantage. On defense, Mount Vernon will shift to a 4-2-5 formation, which differs slightly from the 3-3 stack it ran in 2017.
“I think that fits our personnel a little bit better,” Kerr said. “But as far as a lot of the teaching, it’s very similar. It definitely makes it better for our kids, the kids we have coming back. It’s pretty basic, with the ability to blitz and play a couple different coverages.”
For Mount Vernon’s 13 seniors, expectations are high this season. Despite the heavy roster changeover and lack of recent success, they are confident this year could be a turning point for the program.
“You know, my dad’s team was the last team to go to the playoffs in 1993. And ever since seventh grade I’ve always had that dream of being that team that makes it back to the playoffs,” Hubbard said. “(We’re) gonna give it all we got, enjoy every moment of it and just have great practices every day and whatever happens, happens. But we’re just going to leave everything on the field.”
Ogle believes the team’s rigorous offseason workout regimen will help take it to the next level this year.
“We pushed ourselves way beyond what we did (last year) and I think that’s going to develop our winning culture here,” Ogle said. “We’re going to be physically and mentally tougher than our opponents and we’re going to be ready to come out and win.”
Kerr said that the first week of practice this August was the best he’s seen since he took over the program in 2016. Along with pushing through the heat and taking on harder workouts than ever before, the team also held mindset discussions each morning before practice. It’s all a part of the process, Kerr said, as he looks to lead Mount Vernon to its first winning season since 2013.
“These kids have kind of suffered through some tough times over the last few years and so breaking out of that is going to be tough for us. But that’s where we focused all of our offseason is that kind of competitiveness and learning how to win,” Kerr said.
“I think it’s a mental toughness thing. I think it’s a belief thing. I think we had the talent to win those games last year, I think we have the talent to win these games this year. But being out in the elements like we were today in this heat and continuing to push themselves, and not feeling sorry for themselves, not feeling sorry for themselves when things are down and when something gets tough... I think we’ve put them in situations that are tough that they’ve had to overcome. So I think in the fourth quarter this year, they’re not going to be surprised by anything they see.”
Mount Vernon will kick off the 2018 season at Marion Harding on Aug. 24 and host Newark in its home opener on Aug. 31.