BRIGHTON — The KLAA West was always a gauntlet, and the new KLAA Gold Division figures to be more of the same for the Brighton football team this season.
“A lot of teams in our division are very equal when it comes to talent,” Brighton coach Brian Lemons says. “What’s going to be the biggest factor is which team has the best edge and which team has the best willpower. We have to create a mental edge.”
The Bulldogs are one of five teams in the Gold Division which made the playoffs last season and begin their season Thursday against a sixth playoff team, Belleville. That game will be played at Michigan Stadium, where the Bulldogs will open their season for the second year in a row.
One of the biggest changes will be at quarterback, where junior Will Jontz will take over as the starting quarterback this season after Cameron Tullar opted not to play his senior year. Last year, the two alternated, with Jontz providing a running option and Tullar passing more often than not.
That won’t be the case this year.
“We’re not going to rotate (this year),” Lemons said. “We’re going to go at them with everything we’ve got.”
Last year’s third-stringer, senior Spencer Mykols, and junior Hunter Weber will be backups, although Lemons praised the progress Mykols made in the off-season.
Progress of a more significant kind comes with experience. A half-dozen Bulldogs are third-year players, and their experience will be relied upon heavily this season.
“The coaches have been saying that through team camp in July until now, the kids are coming in with a tool box and experience, and they understand more,” Lemons said. “It shows right now in practice, and I’m assuming it will be just as obvious when the games come around.”
Luke Hedwing, one of those three-year players, says the experience trickles down throughout the roster.
“It helps with the young kids,” he said. “They can look up to us and see what we’re doing, see how we’re working and follow in our footsteps.”
With 87 players on the roster at the start of training camp, there are plenty of opportunities to learn. It’s a number that bucks the trend in a sport where numbers are generally in decline.
But Lemons believes in using every player he can, whether it be offense, defense or special teams.
“Participation is very important to me,” he says. “The more kids who get on the field (in games), the more enthusiastic they are and the more energized they’ll be at practice. We have 11 starters on each side of the ball, play five or six kids who can work at backups. On special teams, we put so much effort there that those kids feel like starters, too. So, in any given game, 50 to 60 kids are getting on the field, and that’s probably the main reason our numbers are climbing every year.”
Matt Buschman, another third-year player, says increased rosters help in other ways.
“Everyone gets to play, but everyone also gets a break during practice. so it’s not constant,” he said. “Having a big group, everyone’s just together and it’s nice.”
Helwing is Brighton’s leading rusher, and joins wide receivers Rudy Ramirez and Buschman as part of a potentially potent offense. Both will see time at linebacker this season as well.
Helwing adds, however, that whatever success the Bulldogs have will come up front on both sides of the ball.
“It’s going to come down to the big men in the trenches,” he said. “I said it last year and I’ll say it this year: It’s all to them. We’ve got the skill players in the backfield, the quarterbacks, the defensive backs, the safeties, the linebackers. But it comes down to the trenches.”
The Bulldogs have plenty of experience there, too, with tackle Andrew Meyer, another third-year starter, who will be joined by returning tackle Ellis Woolette and center Austin Dewey.
Others who should play prominent roles this season are Chris Seguin at running back, wide receiver Drew Billig, safeties Kyle Hook and Jack Krause, linebacker Jack Johnson and tight end Shayne Miciek.
“By no means am I saying we’re stacked,” Lemons says, “but we have kids who have been in the program and understand it.”
But, everything being mostly equal, Lemons will emphasize the mental approach.
“We have to create a mental edge,” he said. “When you have a target on your back, it’s tough. There’s not a lot of games we got into that are a walk-through. We have to compete with some really tough teams, and our guys have to be ready to go. Some of them need to get a chip on their shoulder to be effective.”
Lemons and his staff will do their best to put the chip there. What the players do with it will determine their fate this season.