2018 Central Ozark Conference Football Preview

The COC was already the premier football conference in the Ozarks, adding Joplin only reinforces that point. The league now has teams that will be ranked or receiving votes in three different classes. Some of the biggest names in the league have graduated, but the COC has proven to be more reload than rebuild. Here’s what you should know entering the 2018 season.

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Webb City is the favorite… again.
Keep in mind, these guys are replacing seven guys that are playing college football on the defensive side alone. That doesn’t include losing Division One lineman Landon Bebee (Missouri State) and quarterback Cash Link (Missouri Southern). Coach Rod is also adjusting to life without partner-in-crime Mike Smith, who had been a mainstay as Webb City’s defensive coordinator for the last two decades. The Cardinals have some things to figure out early, on both sides of the ball. A lack of experience may lead them to struggle a little early, but this has the potential to be another dominant group. They’ll have the best individual player on either side of the ball on most Fridays, with Alex Gaskill and Durand Henderson returning. Filling in the pieces around them could be the difficult for most, but this is still Webb City. They have some extremely talented underclassmen, they’re just inexperienced. Senior Cade Beason will start at quarterback with plenty of weapons. A healthy Terrell Kabala could make this offense extremely explosive. You can make a case that Kabala is the best raw athlete in the area. He’s still coming back from an ACL tear suffered last season, but he has the potential to be a game-changer on both sides of the ball. Sophomore Devrin Weathers will make an impact offensively and could be a future Power 5 prospect. Fellow 10th graders Zetthew Meister and Grant Goltra have high-level potential as offensive linemen. Classmate Jayston Smith would’ve been a name to know as well, but a torn ACL ended his season during the summer. The most telling part of Webb City’s season will happen early. The Cards open with Carl Junction and Joplin back-to-back, followed by Carthage in Week 5. Clearly, the schedule makers tried to make things as difficult as possible for Rod. Webb hasn’t played Joplin since 1997, a 33-7 victory, and haven’t lost to Joplin since 1990; that was the last time Webb played all three rivals.

Carl Junction still a problem without Ray Weston.
I wish high school had a redshirt year because Weston was poised to run wild this year after gaining nearly 30 pounds in the offseason. His football future is far from over though and neither is Carl Junction’s season; they still have a ton of talent. Senior Joe Kennedy will now be the focal point and could be a 4,000-yard guy. He will have the ball in his hands a lot and could run even more RPO stuff, taking advantage of his improved decision making. Guys like Teagan Armentrout, Zach Hills, Kobe Maxwell, Nakota Warren, Blake Thomas and Tyler White will all be playmakers offensively. There are two major questions the Bulldogs must answer to see the kind of season they want. First, who steps up to consistently take the pressure off of Kennedy? It’ll likely be a committee approach, but someone(s) will have to be able to alleviate the load on his shoulders. Secondly, what can Carl Junction do defensively to replace both Weston and legendary defensive lineman Zeke Wall (it’s not too early to call him a legend). CJ returns nine full or part-time starters from last year’s defense, but Wall and Weston forced opponents to gameplan each Friday. Replacing their production will be difficult. I still feel like we’ll see sophomore Alex Baker at some point. He’s the future face of the COC and will eventually be one of the best quarterbacks in the area. But, he’s athletic enough to play other positions. This is still one of the best Class 4 teams in Missouri.

Carthage again the team to beat in Class 5
The Tigers have been to the Class 5 Final Four in two of the last three seasons. Making it three in four is possible despite the loss of a strong senior class. It all starts with senior quarterback Zeke Sappington, who will be one of the early favorites for O-Zone Player of the Year. He’s a dual-threat guy that can really sling it. Yes, his life will be more difficult without Arkell Smith, but that just means Jayden Morgan is looking at a breakout season on both sides of the ball. Carthage’s strength will be defensively, where senior Colton Winder (140 tackles in 2017) will anchor an experienced group. Andrew Raney will be one of the best interior defensive linemen in the area and junior defensive end Alex Martini – potentially a D-1 prospect – is a prototypical DE (6-foot-6, long, athletic). Their presence will allow athletic guys on the backend of the defense like Blake Schrader, the Kendrick Twins and Tucker Downing to make plays. If Carthage is to make a COC title run, it’ll happen on the strength of its defense and its ability to be multi-faceted. It’ll be difficult to spread them because of their speed and Raney and Winder make it hard to overpower them. This group will be playing deep into November.

New conference, same finish for Joplin?
Joplin left the Ozark Conference with an undefeated championship run last year. Now the Eagles will try to have the same success in the area’s best football conference. The good news, Joplin gets Webb City and Carl Junction at home. The bad news will be two brutal three-week stretches. Weeks 2-4 they’ll see Webb City, Carthage and Republic and Weeks 7-9 the Eagles will see Ozark, Nixa and Carl Junction. From a pure ability standpoint, Joplin will fit in extremely well. Juniors Blake Tash (quarterback), Isaiah Davis (running back) and Zach Westmoreland (receiver) are among the best at their positions regardless of class. Up front Joplin has big-time size with a line that averages nearly 260lbs, including D-1 prospect Tyler Smith. Senior James Moman might be the best receiver you haven’t heard of and is capable of exploding, especially if teams stack the box or help too much on Westmoreland. Defensively, Evan Bernot sets the edge as a defensive end as well as anyone you’ll see and has only gotten bigger, stronger and faster during the offseason. Junior Eli Eminger is a player in the secondary. So, an extremely talented group that won the Ozark Conference last year returns 16 starters and some of the biggest names in the area. A Class 6 squad, shouldn’t they win the COC? That’s a loaded question but the short answer could be yes. Again, they’re talented enough too but adjusting to the style of play in the COC is tough. We saw Carl Junction acclimate quickly a couple of years ago and even still they lost two regular season games in conference play. The physicality of the league is part of the reason why most teams platoon guys instead of having a bunch of two-way starters. Can Joplin handle the physicality and mental grind of having to preform every Friday? Do they have enough depth to handle said grind? It’s worth noting that the COC is 12-5 vs. the Ozark Conference over the last three seasons.

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Best of the Rest
I love Republic and what Dustin Baldwin has been able to accomplish in a short period of time. The Tigers lose a lot, sure, but the pieces that return are huge. Baldwin brings back four out of five on the offensive line and receiver Cam Flood. Flood will force defenses to have help over the top defensively will which give more space for the backs. Baldwin hasn’t been afraid to stretch people vertically and he has one of the best guys at doing that in the league. I like Flood to have a monster season and I like Republic to be much improved… Nixa went 5-5 last season, starting 5-0 and finishing 0-5. They return just seven total starters, but Coach Rehagen has had several reload jobs. The good news is he returns standout back Sean Sample who nearly rushed for 1,000 yards. He’ll come in handy in Nixa’s run-heavy attack. A key could end up being senior Logan Ayers. He’s a 6-foot-3, 215lb athlete that can play linebacker or defensive end, as well as tight end. He’s in a similar mold to the last two Nixa tight ends, who both turned out to be pretty good players… Ozark had high hopes for 2017, but injuries again helped derail its campaign. The Tigers advanced to the district championship though, and while the Class of 2018 played a large role, several underclassmen took meaningful snaps. Senior Ethan Sandoval – a battering ram disguised as a running back – rushed for 1,000 yards last season and will be a two-way player. Ozark has several holes to fill, but Coach Depee’s system is fully in place. This group knows what it takes to make a district run and knows what it takes to win COC games. It’ll be a reload… Anthony Hays has Branson headed in the right direction. Last year’s 4-7 run included a win over Ozark. Offensively they have to start over, losing their leading passer, rusher and receiver from 2017. But, Branson does welcome back its entire offensive line which is rare in high school football; the Pirates will be able to move the ball. Senior linebacker Trey Hoenie and his 131 tackles from are back from last season. If Branson matures quickly at the skill positions offensively, this could be a team that surprises people… Brock Roweton and Willard have a unique challenge, replacing a D-1 lineman (Ethan Burson) and standouts Quintin Batson and Kenny Chambers. Willard will have the opportunity to platoon for the first time under Roweton, which should help keep Garrett Rice fresh. Rice totaled more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage last year and 20 touchdowns. He could be a 1,000-yard rusher and 500-yard receiver this season. An improved Ethan Thompson and seniors Talon Heimbach and Cody Fees will bring some stability defensively. This group will look a little different, but it’s more of a traditional Roweton team. Tigers have finished above .500 in three of the last five seasons. Roweton has built something sustainable, this group is prepared to win games in a league that should have a ton of parity… Neosho starts Year Two under Leon Miller. The Wildcats went 2-9 last season, but three of those losses came by one possession or less. There will be pockets of inexperience throughout the roster as Miller continues to input his system. He does have one of the league’s best players in LB/TE Tre’von Letts.

MVP: Alex Gaskill, Webb City
Gaskill is the best two-way player in the Ozarks and seems to always come up with a big play whenever needed. He’s one of the most cerebral players we’ve seen on the defensive side of the ball (87 tackles, 6 INT) and he has a ton of Kolesen Crane in his game. The only difference is Gaskill is also an all-state receiver. Look for No. 6 to have an even bigger senior campaign.

Offensive POY: Senior QB Joe Kennedy, Carl Junction
His junior campaign was stellar, with Kennedy being the only returning player locally with 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards. The injury to Rayquion Weston will give Kennedy and even larger role. If we’re talking about a season where he gets 250 pass attempts and 250 carries, we might be looking at Tim Tebow numbers.

Co-Defensive POY: Senior LB Colton Winder, Carthage & Senior LB Tre’von Letts
One of the biggest changes in Carthage last season came on the defensive side of the ball and Winder was at the heart of that. The Tigers held Nixa to 14, Republic to 7, blanked Neosho and held Battle to 7 in the final weeks of the season, largely because Winder and the front 7 forced teams to become one dimensional. He fills gaps at an elite level and gets stops. He had 140 tackles as a junior and that number could grow.

Letts is a unique case. Relatively unknown, Letts received an offer from Central Missouri earlier this summer, thanks to his 119 tackles in 11 games last season. He’s a big hitter and chases the ball anywhere it goes, sideline to sideline. His tackle numbers should again be triple digits this season, but look for his tackles for loss to swell from six to double digits.

Co-Breakout Player: Junior Isaiah Davis, Joplin & Sophomore Devrin Weathers, Webb City
Davis is a power back that showed what he’s capable of in his final three games last season, rushing for nearly 400 yards in that span. He’s one of those that gets better with every carry. Having Blake Tash and Zach Westmoreland makes it impossible to stack the box. Soft fronts and the fact Joplin should be playing from ahead often should lead to lots of opportunities for the three-sport standout to put up numbers.

I may be a year early on Weathers but his time is quickly coming. He saw varsity reps as a freshman receiver and kick returner. He’s a gifted three-sport athlete with rare explosiveness. He was a standout running back in junior high so don’t be surprised to see him get plenty of touches this fall. Coach Roderique will find a way to get him on the field.

Most Underrated Player: Senior WR Cam Flood, Republic
I can’t overstate how impressive he is on tape. He’s a sub 4.5 40 kid so he’s as dangerous on a bubble screen as he is on any deep pattern. He was great as a junior (31-719-7) but look for him to get even more touches as a senior. The threat of him will allow Republic to operate in space this fall. He is one of the most electrifying players in the area.

Top 10 Games

Aug. 24
Carl Junction at Webb City
Joplin at Willard

Aug. 31
Webb City at Joplin
Carthage at Carl Junction
Willard at Ozark
Republic at Nixa

Sept. 7
Joplin at Carthage

Sept. 14
Ozark at Nixa

Sept. 21
Carthage at Webb City

Sept. 28
Ozark at Republic

Oct. 19
Carl Junction at Joplin