By Teddy Rydquist
Leader Staff Writer
Beginning summer practice on August 12, this season represents a much-appreciated return to normalcy for the Oxford Wildcats football program.
After 2020, head coach Zach Line’s debut season was initially postponed until spring then reinstated for fall, plus the cancelation and rescheduling of games, having a traditional camp and entry into the school year is a welcome sign.
Line’s first season resulted in a 2-5 record, including a 1-3 mark in Oakland Activities Association (OAA) Red Division play, with the Wildcats earning victories over the L’Anse Creuse North Crusaders and Oak Park Knights.
In 2021, Oxford will reside in the OAA Red for the eighth-straight season and will be joined by the Clarkton Wolves, Lake Orion Dragons, Southfield A&T Warriors, Stoney Creek Cougars and West Bloomfield Lakers.
Having a second year to install his systems and that added familiarity with his student-athletes, Line likes where his program is as they embark on Year Two.
“We grinded through every week last year, and basically, every week was an install for us last year,” he said. “It’s a brand-new offense, brand-new defense, so every week, they tried their hardest – we all did – we worked, we pushed through to win every game last year, and I think the players did a great job of overcoming adversity. There was a lot going on and I think it was tough for those guys to pour their entire cup into committing to playing when they never knew if it was going to get canceled again, but they did it.
“This year has obviously been different. Expectations, I think they have a better understanding of what I’m expecting. I just try to be consistent every day, and that’s all I ask them to do is be consistent and do your job.”
Line’s attack features some West Coast elements, placing an emphasis on stretching the defense out with horizontal passing routes to open running lanes or shots downfield.
The young man at the controls of this offense is senior Brady Carpenter, who is entering his third year as the program’s primary starting quarterback.
Recently committing to the Saginaw Valley State Cardinals in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) to play baseball, Carpenter started six of the Wildcats’ games in 2020, completing 62 percent (57-of-92) of his passes for 617 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. He also finished as the team’s third-leading rusher, tallying 89 yards and another score on 24 attempts.
“I’m very confident with Brady,” Line said. “I think last year, it’s very exciting when you get some routes going downfield, open up the playbook a little bit, and I think he was seeing a lot – sometimes too much, like we all were. We were all trying to figure each other out and start putting a little bit of everything in.
“This year, we spent a lot of the offseason trying to make things simpler for everybody – coaching staff, players. He’s been laser-focused with his reads, his drops, every part of the game. I think the combination of the coaching he takes on the field and the effort he puts in off the field have made him the quarterback and leader he’s become because him taking his job seriously makes everyone else take their job seriously.”
The only other player to start a game at quarterback for Oxford in 2020 was senior Brendan Moore. With him having exhausted his eligibility, freshman Dom Cassise – the lone ninth-grader on the roster – will serve as Carpenter’s backup.
Having an experienced, dual-threat signal-caller like Carpenter is a major plus for the Wildcats, but the position group that will dictate the offense’s ability to move the football and win the time of possession battle is the offensive line.
The unit returns their three other starters from a year ago in seniors Kewone Burton, Gavin Green and Landon Severn. Seeing time at both center and left guard last fall, Green was also an All-OAA Red honoree.
“The nice thing about the offensive line this year is we brought Eric Ghiaciuc in, and he can mold even guys who were down the depth chart last year into starters,” Line said. “That’s still kind of a rotating position for us, not because one guy is better or worse at a different spot, but we’re trying to find the best fit for our team, what guys can do really well. So even guys like Gavin and Landon, they’re moving around the line because maybe I had them somewhere last year and just didn’t have enough time. We have enough time now to try guys at different spots and see where he’s going to succeed and have success.
“I feel like we’re going to be strong on the line because of our technique, the coaching they’re getting and our players.”
Like Line, Ghiaciuc is one of Oxford High School’s most accomplished student-athletes, playing three years for Rowley (1997-99) and winning an MHSAA Division 2 wrestling championship at 275 pounds as a senior. Following his 2000 graduation, he continued his gridiron career in the MAC for the Central Michigan Chippewas and played six seasons in the National Football League. Spending the last seven seasons on Chris Bell and John Blackstock’s staffs at Lake Orion, Ghiaciuc returned to his alma mater in February.
As for the weapons Carpenter will work with, junior Tate Myre will lead the backfield after an All-OAA Red sophomore showing that saw him run for 482 yards on 111 carries and catch 20 passes for 271 yards, leading the team in both yardage categories.
Myre scored seven touchdowns in 2020, with five of them coming on the ground.
Senior Sal Vackaro, who was the Wildcats’ second-leading rusher a year ago with 101 yards and a score on 18 carries, projects to see plenty of touches, as well.
Vackaro caught one pass for nine yards as a junior, and Oxford will likely look to utilize his athleticism by lining him up in the slot this fall, too, keeping him and Myre on the field together.
“We’ve got a really good group of young guys on this team, and we’ve got good senior leadership,” Line said.
“Tate and Sal, obviously, are two workhorses that are going to touch the ball and do a great job. We’ve got Cam Jarrett, Logan Marshall, Marco Vackaro – Sal’s brother – you go down the list there and there’s a few guys that are ready to go and play when their number is called.”
Jarrett, Marshall and the younger Vackaro are all juniors, meaning they have two years remaining in the program. Vackaro was the only one of the trio to make a statistical impact in 2020, rushing for 12 yards on four carries.
Wide receivers John Asciutto and Jack Keene and tight end Mitch Viviano, all of whom are seniors, figure to be Carpenter’s go-to pass-catchers, with Myre and Sal Vackaro also having a significant impact in the aerial attack.
Asciutto caught one pass for 28 yards as a junior and is set to handle the kick and punt return duties again this season, while Keene hauled in three passes for 22 yards.
Viviano, arguably the most physically gifted athlete in Oxford’s 2022 class, caught two passes for 10 yards last season and starts for the school’s basketball team, too. With the graduation of Trent Brown, who finished as the team’s No. 2 receiver with 152 yards on 12 receptions in Line’s debut campaign, he appears primed for a larger offensive role.
Brandon Groedl, a 2019 Wildcat graduate, joined the staff as tight ends coach this season after spending 2020 working with the freshman team and will help oversee Viviano’s development.
“That’s a position I feel we’re pretty deep at,” Line said of his wideouts. “Jack Keene was a great player for us last year, he’s back. John Asciutto has stepped up, learning the offense really well. He spent a lot of time this offseason working on the route recognition, getting the playbook, more the mental side of it.
“Alec Brown spent a lot of time playing basketball last year and decided to come back out for football, he’s a great player for us. Brody Moore – Brendan Moore’s little brother – he can play a little receiver, and you also have Jay Cady. While he’s a kicker, he’s a great athlete.
“We’re pretty deep at the receiver position, so it’s nice to have a rotation where we can keep guys fresh.”
A senior, Brown’s name is possibly familiar to readers, as he started at point guard for the basketball team as a junior and finished as the second-leading scorer at 6.4 points-per-game.
Cady, as Line mentioned, also serves as Oxford’s kicker. He missed the first four games last fall while rehabbing a right (kicking) foot injury but returned to hit one of his two field goal attempts and figures to be ready for more opportunities this season as a sophomore.
Defensively, the Wildcats typically employ a 4-3 over. This means there are four defensive linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs – two cornerbacks and two safeties – on the field for most snaps.
Depending on the opponent’s personnel, you will also see five defensive backs on the field in likely passing situations, with the third cornerback referred to as the “nickel.”
A lot of the competition for snaps in the front seven is still being sorted out in camp, but a few names are certain.
Viviano will start at defensive end after registering 8.5 tackles (3.5 for loss) and a sack as a junior, and Myre and Sal Vackaro will occupy two of the linebacker spots.
Myre finished with 22 tackles, the second-most on the team in 2020, including 2.5 for loss and Vackaro racked up 11.5 tackles of his own.
Oxford’s leading tackler last fall, Jack Wandrie, has graduated, as has another linebacker in Ty Myre, and Gilbert and Mielnicki were responsible for generating much of the backfield pressure up front. With this quartet no longer an option, there are opportunities for players to win playing time on the defensive line and at linebacker.
Perhaps more than any other area on the team, the secondary went through a lot of attrition since last season, as four players who saw a significant number of snaps – Jake Dawood, Nathan Groedl, Tommy Rineer and John Valvo – have graduated.
A physical cornerback, Valvo developed into a leader on the defense and will be continuing his career at the Division III level for the Albion Britons in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA).
One returning name we know on the back end is Asciutto, who saw time at safety a year ago and will be counted on to help hold it down back there this fall.
“We’ll pretty much be new at every position in the secondary,” Line said. “We got some corners right now who are in that John Valvo genre of physical.
“We like to get our corners involved in the run game, so we’ve got some guys that are very physical and on the back end, we’ve got some smart guys. There will be some surprises on the back end.
“I think the biggest thing is, there’s always a lull on a team without coaching and they’ve avoided that on their own. They’ve been locked-in, laser-focused and ready to work, so I think they understand what we’re trying to get across here.”
At the time of this article’s publication, the season-opener is only nine days away.
Just as important as any on-field position battle, the MHSAA and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) have not imposed any capacity restrictions for the 2021 season, allowing Wildcat Stadium to welcome in everyone interested in attending.
Oxford’s 2021 Schedule (All games kick at 7 p.m.)
– August 27 vs. Romeo
– September 3 at Rochester Adams
– September 10 vs. West Bloomfield
– September 17 at Lake Orion
– September 24 vs. Clarkston (Homecoming)
– October 1 at Southfield A&T
– October 8 at Stoney Creek
– October 15 vs. Rochester
– October 22 vs. Chippewa Valley