ESJ looks to reestablish physical identity

Published 10:18 am Saturday, August 23, 2014


RESERVE—East St. John coach Phillip Banko kept coming back to one word when describing what he was looking for in his team’s preseason scrimmage, jamboree and overall final season preparation.

“Explosiveness,” Banko said. “We want to see guys making impact plays on both sides of the ball.”

Banko and East St. John are a week away from facing West St. John in jamboree action, and onlookers will be curious to see how a slew of new faces stack up after the Wildcats graduated a large senior class and saw 15 players from last year’s team ink to play at the next level on National Signing Day.   

“People want to talk about what we’ve lost, but I’ll tell you what, we’ve got some guys here who are ready to step in,” Banko said. “Our coaches are doing a great job getting them ready to play.”

The Wildcats identity last season was of a physically dominant team on both the offensive and defensive lines. Tailback Nigel Anderson finished as the River Region’s second leading rusher in the regular season, while quarterback and LSU commitment Xavier Lewis — back to that buzzword — was responsible for a number of explosive, game-changing plays. And the Wildcats’ starting defensive line accounted more than 50 sacks between the four players.

The good news is Lewis and Anderson are back. The question mark lies with the line play: all five starting offensive linemen and all four starting defensive linemen have departed.

Banko is encouraged about both lines, cautioning each stills needs to prove itself against outside competition. 

Though the offensive line returns no starters, Banko believes a crew of upperclassmen are more than capable of leading the way. 

“I’m pleased with how they’ve answered the bell,” Banko said. “We’ve got two senior guards who, while they haven’t played before, understand what we’re doing. It makes all the difference. And we have a junior offensive tackle who I’m very, very excited to see play football.”

That offensive tackle is Alton Webb, who stands at 6’3” and weighs 285 lbs. Banko said Webb is “very agile, strong and smart.”

“And he’s getting better every day,” Banko said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him rip down the field and hit someone in the mouth.”

Webb and his teammates will have to be quick studies, as the beginning of the Wildcats schedule is again unforgiving. Many are predicting a December battle between John Curtis and Rummel to settle the Division I state championship. If that happens, Banko may be in high demand to give his thoughts: he and his team are set to host Rummel and travel to face Curtis within the first three weeks of play.

“I know it’s cliché, but I’m not looking ahead to that, and it’s my job to make sure our guys aren’t either,” Banko said. “I love Bill Belichick and one thing I try to emulate is the way he focuses on the moment at hand. How can we get better right now? 

“The scrimmage gets us ready for the jamboree. That will get us ready to start the season. And those early games are what gets us ready for district.”

While the Wildcats’ defensive line is inexperienced,  there is more stability behind them. Safety/linebacker Ahmani Martin comes off a season that saw him share L’OBSERVATEUR’S St. John Parish Defensive MVP honors with teammate Darren Williams. The “Honeycat” is a playmaker that Banko said is successful because he “plays with a chip on his shoulder.”

“Everyone looks at him when he gets off the bus and they’ll think, ‘That guy? He doesn’t play.’ He’s not the biggest guy but he’s a very talented, very very smart kid. He’s a coach on the field and he’s like a sponge. He wants to learn more and more.”

Middle linebacker Jazz Clayton will be a key factor, and Banko sees senior defensive lineman DeMarco Kirkland as someone who can step in and make an impact.

Offensively, besides Lewis and Anderson, fullback Shedrick Colbert is a player Banko expects to be a bigger part of the offense. 

“He knows his role,” Banko said. “He knows we have other guys who will see the ball more. But he does so many great things for us, especially in terms of blocking. Aside from Xavier, he’s that guy who knows exactly what everyone else is doing and where they’re supposed to be out there. He’s one of our cornerstones.”