Don’t tell that to first-year head coach James Leonard.
“A lot of people are expecting us to fall off because Brendan is gone and because coach LeZotte is gone,” Leonard said. “We have the same attitude. I actually think we’re more hungry this year, because people are tired of hearing we can’t do without Brendan, we can’t do without LeZotte.”
Aquinas reached new heights the past two seasons, winning 17 or 24 games and making a pair of state playoff appearances – including a close loss in the 2011 quarterfinals. LeZotte, who went 28-16 in four seasons with the Irish, departed to become an assistant at Wayne County. Douglas, one of just three seniors last season, rushed for almost 3,000 yards and made almost 300 tackles his last two years with the Irish. Douglas is now vying for the No. 3 tailback position at the University of Georgia.
Despite the loss of Douglas, Aquinas sports 46 players on the roster, a good number for Class A football, Leonard said. The offense features running backs Ruben Garnett and John Morris, a pair of fast, powerful runners. Sophomore quarterback Liam Welch is being tasked to run the team’s spread attack that includes junior wide receiver Nash Bennett and freshman receiver Justin Gibbs. And the entire offensive line, including junior Napoleon Williams, returns.
“We’re looking to throw the ball this year,” Leonard said. “We had to rely on Brendan sometimes a little too much. I think Liam and some of these new guys are really going to open it up for us. We’re not going to be so one-dimensional.”
Despite the loss of LeZotte, the 26-year-old Leonard, who served as defensive coordinator the past two seasons, has eight assistant coaches – he called it the largest coaching staff he’s ever seen at Aquinas. Former Irish quarterback Eric Stallings is back coaching the wide receivers. Patrick Nordmann, another Irish alum who played safety at Georgia Tech, will work with the defensive backs.
Offensive coordinator Denny Dotson enters his third year calling the plays. Jim Connor, Aquinas head coach from 2003-2006, and longtime assistant Mike Laney will serve as co-defensive coordinator.
“The people calling the shots are still here,” Leonard said.
While Leonard may be young, he has plenty of experience. His grandfather, Denny, coached for 21 years as the head man for Boys Catholic before becoming the first coach of Aquinas following the merger of Boys Catholic and Mount St. Joseph Academy. The younger Leonard, a 2005 Aquinas graduate, began working with the football team as an assistant under Connor when a medical condition led him to giving up contact sports his junior year.
“Working for the best two coaches we’ve had here, Connor and Matt LeZotte, I’ve learned a lot from those two guys,” Leonard said. “The way we run practice and the way we run the program is the same.”
The new coach said he has a different personality than LeZotte. With Aquinas talking about contending for a region title this season, Leonard is ramping up his efforts to get his players’ attention.
“I’m a little bit more in your face. I get in their grills a lot,” Leonard said. “The kids will tell you we have a little bit more intensity over here now.”