Months before Lawrence High’s football season began, coach Dirk Wedd saw something special in the incoming sophomore class.
The earliest signs came way back in the last week of May, when the Lions began their summer schedule with team camp. Even then, Wedd began to envision a number of sophomores taking on prominent roles this fall.
The LHS upperclassmen, senior free safety and receiver Kieran Severa admitted, weren’t as quick to see the same potential their coaches did at first.
“They came in, and we were the big, bad seniors, and they were just little sophomores — little snot-nosed kids that don’t really know the game yet,” Severa said. “And they’ve really grown up a ton.”
One after another, members of the class of 2016 began proving their worth. Some did so immediately. For others it was a process. Now, headed into the regular-season finale at rival Free State on Friday, Lawrence (3-5) starts five sophomores — lineman Amani Bledsoe, tight end Price Morgan, quarterback Alan Clothier, linebacker Tanner Green and cornerback JD Woods. Four more play significant snaps as back-ups or on special teams: safety and receiver J’Moni Bryant, lineman Nate Koehn, corner Ivan Hollins and long snapper Konner Kelley.
Wedd said when the coaches give one of the young Lions an assignment, they don’t care about his age.
“We just put the 11 best football players out on the field,” Wedd said, “and (the sophomores) have stepped up and done a lot of positive things.”
At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, Bledsoe earned a starting spot at right tackle entering the season opener and has become a menacing defensive tackle of late as well.
Clothier first earned regular snaps as an outside linebacker and has since taken over as the starting quarterback, with a 2-0 record.
A few weeks into the season, Morgan’s athleticism and smarts made him a two-way starter, at tight end and linebacker, before a shoulder injury limited how much LHS could use him on defense.
But when Morgan couldn’t play linebacker, another sophomore took his spot: “Tanner Green has come out of nowhere,” Wedd said. “We knew he was a tough kid, but he’s got a great nose for the ball.”
Woods went from back-up to first string at corner and subs in for starting running back Drew Green around eight to 10 snaps a game.
“JD adds a little something we didn’t have,” Wedd said of the back who rushed for 148 yards in Lawrence’s romp against K.C. Wyandotte, “and that’s speed.”
Between taking the field for every special-teams play and spelling starters on offense and defense, Bryant plays 30 to 40 snaps a game. Plus, Koehn, Hollins and Kelley have earned the trust of their coaches and teammates to perform when called upon.
Clothier said the LHS veterans regularly remind the sophomores how much they expect out of them, and the young guys feel far more adjusted than they did in September.
“After the first couple games, we got used to the flow of the games,” Clothier said. “By now, we’re just stepping it up, and we know how fast the game goes, and we’re playing at that speed now.”
Added Morgan: “For me, it was kind of rough. You have to get through that transition period.”
The sophomores know facing Free State (7-1, ranked No. 2 in Class 6A) won’t be easy, either.
“It’s gonna take the toughest game we’ve played this year,” Morgan said of pulling off an upset. “They’re a great team.”
More than anything, Clothier noted, the sophomores want to help the LHS seniors beat FSHS: “This is their year,” he said.
Severa said he has confidence in every Lawrence sophomore who will play in the City Showdown, which led him to recall his first varsity start. That came against the Firebirds in 2011, and LHS won, 20-0.
“I wonder if those guys trusted me at free safety,” Severa said. “I’d like to think that they did.”