Capital took some hard hits at graduation in certain positions, but the Cougars still retained some other players who can deliver hard hits of their own.
Among those lost from last year’s 6-6 squad that reached the Class AAA playoff quarterfinals were two Division I receivers in Kerion Martin (Marshall) and Chance Knox (VMI). Also gone is linebacker and leading tackler Logan Spurlock and talented two-way back Tay Calloway.
Cougars coach Jon Carpenter, who begins his 11th season, said every year is a process to replace the starters who had grown through the system.
“I think every year you do that,’’ Carpenter said. “You get down and depressed about who you lost, but we’ll be all right. It’s exciting.’’
Capital’s offense can build around its line, which returns three starters, as well as junior quarterback Evan Landers (6-foot, 180 pounds), who last season threw for 1,881 yards and 20 touchdowns. Landers completed 57 percent of his pass attempts and had season-highs of 260 passing yards against Cabell Midland and 242 yards against Wheeling Park.
The returnees along the line are seniors Chris Hudson (6-4, 235) and David Harris (5-11, 295) and junior Amari Brown (5-10, 245). Harris is a four-year starter and Carpenter called Hudson “one of the best football players I’ve had since I’ve been here.’’
The Cougars will break in two new starters on the front wall, with promising freshman Aiden Ellis and sophomore Isaiah Chapman (6-3, 190) playing those roles in the team’s preseason scrimmage against Wyoming East.
Junior running backs Shawn James (6-0, 180) and Zion Smith (5-9, 165) had just 51 carries between them last season, but Carpenter thinks both can contribute a lot to the offense this season. A pair of the team’s top defenders, seniors Christian Gist (6-0, 214) and Chris Crowder (5-8, 185), will share duties at fullback.
“I think we’ve got two good running backs coming back,’’ Carpenter said, “and I think we’ll be better on the offensive line. There was a time last year when I tried to get the bus to run over me, and that was rough, but I think we’ll be better there.’’
Despite the losses at receiver, Capital welcomes back one proven gamebreaker in senior KJ Taylor (5-10, 160), who caught 37 passes for 538 yards and four TDs a year ago. Carpenter said as many as five young players are candidates for the other receiving position.
“KJ is as quick as anybody we’ve ever had,’’ Carpenter said. “I think he’s got a chance to be really good.’’
On defense, Brown is the nose guard, flanked by Hudson and senior Depri Padgett (6-1, 215).
At outside linebacker, Crowder returns for his third season as starter, with senior Jacob Mullins (6-1, 170) and sophomore Adrien Woods also vying for playing time there. Gist returns at inside backer, with two sophomores also earning looks in Za’shawn Davis (5-9, 200) and Tanner Burnette.
In the secondary, senior Josh Martinez (5-8, 145) is back at one corner, and Taylor will man the other, with help from many of the same candidates at receiver. Twin brothers Zion Smith and Zain Smith (5-9, 160) hold down the safety spots.
Capital will need some leadership following its graduation losses and a primary source could be Gist, a first-team selection on last year’s All-Mountain State Athletic Conference squad at linebacker.
“Of course, I’ll take that role easily,’’ Gist said during the preseason. “I’ll step up and inspire these young’uns, these freshmen, and just inspire them to be leaders whenever I leave, too.’’