BLAIRSVILLE — A sea of mud makes for a poor foundation.
Take 57,600 square feet of dirt, add several hours of rain and then just try to build anything on it. It won’t work — well, except for maybe one thing.
North Star football field became a 57,600 square-foot sea of mud on Oct. 26, 2018, and Blairsville coach Rick Artley remembers it well.
“That was the worst field I have ever been on,” Artley said.
But as sloppy as it was, Artley believes the Bobcats might have begun building 2019 on it when they beat the Cougars, 40-6, that night to end the 2018 season.
The field and the players looked the same at the end, but one player, then-freshman tailback Sincere McFarlin, stood out with the best game of his young varsity career in all that muck with 211 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Artley hopes it was at least a significant building block, if not a foundation, for a much-improved running game in 2019.
“I thought Sincere really started to step up toward the end of the season,” Artley said. “The numbers didn’t show until the North Star game, but there was a major change, even just in practice, seeing the cuts that he was catching.”
McFarlin rushed for only 496 yards last season, but the Bobcats are counting on him to evolve from those final four weeks of last season. Evolution would take the pressure off new starting quarterback, junior Zak Artley, the son of the head coach.
Artley takes over after serving as the backup to Devin Burkhart, who averaged 20 attempts per game last season in the absence of an effective running game. The Bobcats averaged just 77 rushing yards.
“With Devin we almost had to rely on him throwing the football for us,” Rick Artley said. “This year, with three starting linemen back, we have to focus on running the football with Sincere. Being that that should be a key, Zak does a nice job of throwing on the run, so when he comes off that play-action, I think it will be a big luxury that he has that Devin didn’t have.”
The offensive line is led by three of the team’s eight seniors, Konnar Cahill, Gabe Citeroni and Eli Clevenger, a trio averaging almost 240 pounds. Clevenger returns at right tackle, Cahill is on the other side and Citeroni returns at left guard.
“I feel real comfortable with those three,” Rick Artley said. “To me this is the best line we’ve had since 2014 with these guys.”
The Bobcats were looking at junior Jacob Faser at center and senior Lucas Chambers or sophomore Conner Rebo at right guard. But there was a possibility of moving Clevenger to center and filling the right side with Chambers and Rebo.
“I feel confident that we will be able to get it done,” Rick Artley said. “It’s a lot of pressure on those other two (positions) though.”
The offensive and defensive lines have their work cut out for them to improve on 2018. Blairsville ran by far the biggest rushing deficit of any team in the Heritage Conference. Blairsville gained only 767 yards while giving up 3,130, a difference of minus-236 yards per game.
“The line of scrimmage is where the game is won,” Rick Artley said. “When we are able to compete at the line of scrimmage, those are the games we stay in. When we get blown off the ball, that’s when we get blown out of the game.”
With that in mind, the Bobcats will rely on Clevenger and Cahill at tackle and Chambers at guard to help take advantage of a major change — moving Citeroni from the defensive line to middle linebacker to take advantage of his aggressive downhill approach.
Citeroni joins sophomore Isaac Witmer in the middle, with Devon Witmer and McFarlin lining up as the outside backers. Sophomore Hank Skirboll takes over at strong safety.
Senior Jesse Klingensmith moved from cornerback to free safety. Junior Ashton Perfetti moved into one of the corners. Only Perfetti and Klingensmith started last year, and the young defense features only four seniors.
Of all two-way players, Devon Witmer, a junior who was not on the team last year, might make the biggest impact. Two years ago, Witmer was a 5-9, 145-pound reserve, but he came back at 6-2,175. In addition to outside linebacker, he is going to be utilized on offense as a slot receiver and possibly give the team options at punter.
“Devon is going to be a key contributor,” Rick Artley said. “He’s a guy who will always be on the field.”
Blairsville’s three top receivers last season either graduated or opted not to play this season. But with a roster of 36, the most for the Bobcats since 2014, Rick Artley thinks the team is deeper in receivers and skill players in general than in linemen.
Only Perfetti returns with starting experience at wideout with seven receptions. Senior Noah Bartholomew could emerge as the season develops.
Isaac Witmer lines up at fullback, and junior Cole Townsend takes over at tight end. They combined for 25 catches last season.
Blairsville excelled in one area last season — takeaways. The Bobcats led the conference with 29 in 10 games, but they committed 24 turnovers.
The Bobcats are grooming a new kicker as well. That’s significant because the team did not have an extra-point kick attempt in 2018, which is odd for a team renowned for its kickers through the years. The Bobcats were auditioning freshman Andrew Barris for the job.