OXFORD — Considering that Roc Thomas missed all or significant portions of five of Oxford’s 12 games a year ago, then-first-year coach Ryan Herring did quite a job.
The Yellow Jackets won nine games in a row en route to a 9-3 record. They finished second to Clay-Chalkville in their Class 6A region and nearly advanced to the state quarterfinals in a game that saw Thomas go down with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter.
As great as the Mr. Football and the now-freshman Auburn running back was, those who saw Oxford play enough a year ago know it wasn’t all him. They also know Herring did a nice job finding answers when Thomas was out.
And now, for Herring’s second-year encore, he gets to replace Thomas … and 10 starters on defense. Not that he sounds worried.
“Call me crazy, but I’m planning on us being a better football team,” Herring said.
The Yellow Jackets return their passing game, led by quarterback Ty Webber and wide receiver Tre Gamble, whom Herring calls “the best receiver in the state.” They return most of what was an all-new offensive line a year ago.
And while 10 defensive positions will have new starters, Herring sees more speed.
“We’ve got more speed on the perimeter on both sides of the ball,” Herring said. “You’re minus Roc, but I think we’ll be faster on the perimeter on defense and faster on the perimeter on offense.”
That’s not to say Oxford didn’t lose much. The Yellow Jackets lost one player who accounted for 2,211 of its 2,767 rushing yards and 33 of its 59 touchdowns.
They lost a similar playmaker on defense. Nose guard Kenyan Richey, like many elements of Oxford’s team a year ago, lived in Thomas’ shadow.
“We lost a nose guard who was the best I’ve ever coached,” Herring said. “He’s the only two-gap nose I’ve ever coached. He was unbelievable. He was built perfect for a high school nose guard. Whatever weight you wanted him to lift, he could lift. He was just a brute.
“You can’t replace a guy like that, but we’re going to be smaller and quicker on the D-line this year. They’re all in that 200-pound range, and they’re going to be tough and get after it.”
But with all that Oxford lost, important elements return.
Webber threw for 1,893 yards, 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions in 2013.
With Thomas out of Oxford’s 28-24 loss to Bob Jones in the second round of the playoffs, Webber put the Yellow Jackets in a position to win. A holding penalty wiped out his would-be, go-ahead touchdown run, and his apparent touchdown pass to Jacob Cook on fourth down was ruled out of bounds.
Webber “is a three-year starting quarterback,” Herring said. “That ought to be very valuable. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be very valuable. We’re expecting a lot out of him.”
Webber was also Oxford’s second-leading rusher with 361 yards and two touchdowns. Herring said Oxford will go from the pistol formation to straight shotgun this year and will take advantage of Webber’s running ability more in the read option.
The other half of the read option will be converted safety Thomas Rudolph, who moves to running back.
“He was our hardest hitter back there at safety last year, and he is going to be a solid running back,” Herring said. “I have no doubt about that.
“He’s got great speed. He’s not the same speed Roc is. Nobody is, but he’s got great speed, and he’s tough. He’s coachable.”
Assuming Oxford shows a credible running game, the Yellow Jackets should be strong in the passing game.
Webber’s top target will be Gamble, who transferred from Lincoln a year ago. Gamble caught 65 passes for 1,142 yards and 13 touchdowns.
But Oxford also has Cook to punish teams that double-cover Gamble. Cook caught 24 passes for 320 yards and five scores in 2013.
“Jacob Cook, this summer, has just bloomed,” Herring said. “We did some seven-on-seven stuff with other schools, and they actually talked about him and not Gamble. They were talking about how good he was.
“I think he runs as good of routes as anybody you’ll see. … I feel good about what he can do. He can get behind you. He’s got speed. I wouldn’t label him a possession receiver. Cookie is a threat.”
As surprisingly good as Oxford could be on offense minus Thomas, defense could be a bigger question mark.
Rudolph’s contribution at safety will depend on his offensive load, and outside linebacker Tanner Lloyd is the one returning starter playing the same position. Former cornerback Jacob Shake moves to outside linebacker.
K.J. Adams, who saw playing time at outside linebacker a year ago, will move inside and join Kenny Britt.
“We’ve got two inside linebackers that, I think, both could be better than what we had last year,” Herring said.
The Yellow Jackets will be smaller and quicker up front and faster in the secondary. Herring said safeties Jacob Sears and Schyler Johnson give Oxford more speed on the back end. Cornerback Ronnie Isaac didn’t play a year ago and “might be the fastest guy on the team, and he’s a tough kid,” Herring said.
“At the other corner, it’s between two guys, and they’re both faster” than what Oxford had in 2013, Herring said. “The back four is going to be faster.”
Whether more speed translates to a better defense depends on how the defense jells.
Whether tweaks on offense translate into the same effectiveness without Thomas? Again, it depends.
But Herring believes the potential exists.
“Now, is it going to be better? We don’t know yet,” he said. “Can it be better? I definitely think it can.”
Oxford has motivation to show there’s more to the program than Thomas.
“It’s good having him, obviously. He’s a real good running back,” Webber said. “But we’ve showed we can play without him. We have receivers who can catch the ball, and we have other people who can run the ball.
“Just play as a team, and we can show we can play without him.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.