By PAUL BOGGS
Photo’s by Kent Sanborn
CHESAPEAKE – Todd Knipp wants to nip the Panthers’ injuries in the bud.
Because, if Chesapeake stays healthy, this could end up being a quality campaign.
Knipp – as a Panther assistant coach last season – witnessed first-hand how many injuries the Purple endured.
It started in the squad’s season-opening blowout loss at Oak Hill, and seemed to snowball from there.
But now, Knipp is the head coach – and he’s hoping this season is indeed the silver lining to last season’s storm cloud called the injury bug.
Knipp takes over for veteran Chesapeake coach Andy Clark, and returns to the head coaching ranks following 13 seasons as the bench boss at Rock Hill.
He has been an assistant on Clark’s staff for the past two years, including last season’s 5-5 mark.
Knipp discussed what has been a smooth transition to his second head coaching post, and what it means to once again lead a football team.
“It feels good to be back as a head coach. I enjoy being a head coach and I’ve been fortunate to replace two very good head coaches which left on their own terms. There has been a lot of stability in this Chesapeake program. I am only the third coach in 30 years. We’ve kept our staff mostly intact and the community has been very receptive,” he said. “It’s been a great transition thus far.”
In dealing with the mash unit that became the Panther roster, Knipp said several of the younger players gained valuable experience for this year.
“All the injuries last season were unfortunate. We’ve done a lot of prehab things to try to prevent some injuries, but broken bones and ligament tears are things that you can’t prepare for. But with those injuries, a lot of young kids had to step in and become comfortable playing against physically more mature guys,” said the coach. We took a next-man-up mentality, and we have that again.”
While the Panthers did graduate standout Austin Browning – their all-Southeast District Division V first-team defensive back – three other all-district honorees return, all of which are seniors.
Chesapeake sports seven seniors altogether, as the majority of the roster – 15 to be exact – consists of sophomores.
Knipp said it is important for the underclassmen-heavy Panthers to keep developing – and stay healthy.
“On paper we look young, being sophomore-heavy with our 37 kids, but actually we’re pretty experienced,” he said. “We had kids keep stepping in and getting valuable experience. That should help them in making this transition quickly.”
But, at least the backfield is back-loaded with experience.
All four of the Panthers’ starting running backs are seniors – with Will Todd (5-7, 150) and Kamren Harless (6-1, 165) the wingbacks and Carson Nida (5-9, 165) and Logan Walsh (5-8, 165) the fullbacks.
Harless – an all-district first-team running back – rushed 117 times for 1,053 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, while Todd – an all-district Honorable Mention selection – carried 57 times for 641 yards and eight scores in only five games due to injury.
“All of those guys have started for us and they compete well with each other. They will each carry the ball, we can throw the ball to them out of the backfield, they all block for one another, they are all athletic and self-less. I think they like blocking for each other more than they do running the ball,” said Knipp. “All those kids kind of have a different skill set, but they bring a lot to the table.”
Donald Richendollar – a five-foot nine-inch 160-pound junior – takes over for Browning as the starting quarterback.
Richendollar actually started the final few games of last year.
Richendollar’s receivers include a trio of juniors – Thomas Sentz (6-3, 170), Ian Hicks (5-3, 110) and Nick Ferguson (5-10, 145) – and tight ends Justice Hutchison (6-3, 225, So.), Blake Thompson (5-10, 190, Jr.) and Luke Shields (5-9, 165, Sr.).
“Donald got a lot of valuable experience at the varsity level. He probably took snaps at quarterback almost every game, meaningful snaps,” said Knipp. “Donald gives us a pretty good skill set as far as a runner and a thrower at the quarterback position. He’s really grasping the offense and showing a lot of leadership.”
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary from the aforementioned injuries is the offensive line, as sophomore center Alec Dement (5-10, 215) took over in the second quarter of the opener at Oak Hill.
Fellow sophomores R.J. Ward (5-9, 215) and Nick Burns (6-0, 270) are the guards, as Ward will be the backup center to Dement.
Still two other sophomores, Zack Stepp (5-11, 190) and Cody Bragg (5-9, 175), are the backups guards – as returning junior J.T. Henry (5-10, 255) holds down the left tackle spot.
The Panthers are anchored up front by big senior standout right tackle Dakota Hess, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 365 pounds.
Knipp mentioned the depth and development of his offensive linemen.
“By the end of last year, we had three freshmen starting on the offensive line. This year, we’re a little bigger, and we can rotate several kids in there and keep them fresh and they are all able to do the job,” he said. “The key now is getting them to jell together and gain a better understanding of the system and execute it at a high level.”
Those same linemen line up on defense, with Blackburn and Henry returning at tackle, as Hess is the strong side end and Shields on the weak side.
Hutchison, Burns and Mount are among that rotation as well.
Dement and Ward are the inside linebackers, with Walsh – a three-year starter – and Todd, a two-year starter, on the outside.
Nida and Richendollar return as the cornerbacks, with Sentz, Hicks and Ferguson rotating in – as Harless is back at safety with backup quarterback Levi Best (5-10, 130, So.) backing him up.
Knipp explained that the Panthers play primarily two types of offenses – a run-oriented attack and a spread-the-field formation.
He wants his defense to be fast, but be better against the run.
“Our back seven in our 4-2-5 has a lot of experience, our secondary has a lot of speed, but our run defense does have to improve,” said Knipp. “We want to swarm to the football and get as many guys around the ball, but we have to do a better job of getting off blocks and making tackles. With the types of teams we play, shedding blocks and making open-field tackles are important if we are going to succeed. We should be able to cover some ground, but we still need to get guys to the ground.”
Brady Wilson, one of the seven seniors, is the Panthers’ placekicker.
As for the Ohio Valley Conference, Knipp knows the OVC extremely well – from his days at Rock Hill.
Gallia Academy is the defending champion, but the coach sees the conference as a wide-open race.
Head Coach Todd Knipp
- Current Team
- Past Teams
- Rock Hill
Although, if the Panthers can stay healthy, their trek through the OVC – along with the entire season – can be made much smoother.
“If we can stay healthy, I believe we can compete with anybody we play. Football is still all about blocking, tackling and taking care of the ball. If we do those things better than our opponents, then we give ourselves a chance to win,” said Knipp. “Our goal is to compete, play hard and give ourselves an opportunity at the end of the ballgame and see what happens.”
Chesapeake 2019 Roster & Stats