SALEM-Despite going winless in 2012, coach Ron Johnson and the Salem Quakers were extremely upbeat entering his second season at the helm. So far, that optimism has been right on the mark.
The Quakers have jumped out to a 2-1 start as they prepare to begin their Northeastern Buckeye Conference schedule tonight at Louisville. The start may be surprising to some, but not to Johnson and his players.
"Our goal was actually to start 3-0," Johnson said. "The guys worked very hard in the offseason a getting stronger physically. This year we have been able to impose our will on other teams. We were fully expecting to play like this."
Salem very nearly had that 3-0 start Johnson envisioned. After narrow wins over Liberty and United to start the season, the Quakers squandered a 14-0 halftime lead against East Liverpool, falling 20-14.
"We've been working very hard to correct what happened in the second half last week," Johnson said. "We just did not finish off the game in the second half. We need to play two complete halves of football."
The Quakers haven't had much time to dwell on their disappointment with Louisville looming this week. The Leopards are 3-0 with close wins over Canfield and North Canton Hoover and a two-touchdown victory over Ravenna. They have achieved their unbeaten record without expected starting quarterback Joey Duckworth, who was sidelined with a season-ending knee injury right before the opener against Canfield. In his place has stepped Connor Zwick, who was a starter at defensive back and had never played quarterback at all until fall practice. So far Zwick has been equal to the task, He threw the game-winning touchdown against Canfield with under five minutes left in the game and limiting his mistakes.
"He (Zwick) is a very competitive player," Johnson said. "He takes care of the football and makes smart decisions. The coaching staff obviously has a lot of trust in him."
Zwick has been able to ease into his role due in part to help from a physical Louisville defense and solid special teams.
"Their defense is very tough and well coached," Johnson said. "They are very aggressive, we are going to have to make extra sure to take care of the ball on our end."
The Quakers have a high amount of confidence in their own quarterback, Trace Jenkins, who-according to Johnson-has taken a big leap forward in his second year running the offense.
"Trace really grabbed ahold of things in the second half of the United game," Johnson said. Getting a full season last year of running the offense was huge for him. His confidence has really grown this season."
For Johnson, the biggest key to success against Louisville will be having his defense be aggressive and forcing the issue.
"Louisville is very disciplined with the football," Johnson said. "We can't expect them to turn the ball over so we have to create some turnovers ourselves. We also have to be sure not to give them any extra opportunities."