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East Jessamine moves forward from ‘what ifs’ of 2019, features new backfield talent on offense

(KyForward is previewing the upcoming football season for many high school programs in Central Kentucky. The season is scheduled to begin Sept. 11.)

By Chad Hensley
Special to KyForward

Many high school football teams look back on past seasons and think about the “what ifs” in close losses.

East Jessamine might be wondering about those “what ifs” from last year, but head coach Mike Bowlin is focused on the present and is preparing his Jaguars for a Sept. 11 clash against Class 1A runner-up Paintsville.

The “what ifs” for the 2019 Jaguars were the three losses by one score or less, including a 24-21 setback to Madison Southern in the Class 5A playoffs. East Jessamine finished with a 9-3 record after bowing out in that playoff defeat at home.

“Madison Southern has quickly become a natural rival,” said Bowlin, who is in his 16th season in charge at East Jessamine. “They will always be a tough team to face.”

East Jessamine head coach Mike Bowlin led his team to a 9-3 record last season.

The Jaguars enjoyed successful campaigns from 2015-17 in Class 4A but were moved up to Class 5A prior to the 2019 season. Bowlin has tallied a 78-87 record in 15 seasons at East Jessamine.

If East Jessamine is to win the first regional championship in school history, the Jaguars will have to do so behind a new starting quarterback while also replacing two 1,000-yard rushers.

The majority of the yards gained by the East Jessamine offense came from Turner McHolan, Dylan Moore and Valdon Miles, who were all seniors in 2019. McHolan notched 409 yards through the air and gained 688 yards on the ground.

Moore led the way the rushing category with 1,622 yards and 19 touchdowns, while Miles tallied 1,295 yards and 15 touchdowns.

The trio accounted for 3,605 of the team’s 4,394 rushing yards and 47 of 62 rushing touchdowns. Moore also led the team in receiving with 181 yards and one touchdown on 13 catches.

Bowlin will look to Conner Darby to lead the team as a senior signal caller as well as Donavyn Motley and Tajii Jackson in the backfield. Bowlin said both Motley and Jackson “are set up for great seasons running the ball.”

What the Jaguars are lacking in returning yardage, they more than make up for it on the offensive line with senior tackle Jaiden Campbell, who was named second team all-state. He will look to challenge for first-team honors in 2020.

Joining Campbell as leaders on the offensive line are seniors Caleb Fleckenstein and Xavier Estes. Bowlin also expects all-state seasons from both Fleckenstein and Estes.

The Jaguars other returners on offense are Derek Bokros at tight end and Caleb Smith at wide receiver.

The five total returners on offense are joined by six returning starters on defense including Dylan Carter (CB), Andre Johnson (OLB), DJ Jones at (ILB), Logan Woolums (DL), Moses Penman (OLB) and James Fraley (DL).

With the skill positions on offense being inexperienced as starters, Bowlin’s defensive squad will be called upon early to keep his team in games. Johnson and Jones are forces at their respective linebacker positions.

As a sophomore two years ago, Johnson was masterful at his inside linebacker position with 78 tackles and 10 tackles for losses. He also recovered four fumbles. Jones carved up opposing offenses to the tune of 65 tackles in 2019, with two tackles for loss and one fumble recovery.

Darby amassed 42 tackles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions. Despite that fact, Bowlin has made the ultimate decision to begin the season with Darby only playing quarterback.

“Conner Darby will be our QB but was our starting safety last year,” said Bowlin. “We try to keep our quarterback as healthy as possible, so he is moving out of necessity. He would have easily been one of our best defenders, but he is so good at quarterback it is hard to justify playing him on defense.”

When asked about his team’s strengths and weaknesses, Bowlin said, “Our strengths are that we are experienced at a lot of positions and we are very strong in the weight room.

“Another strength is that this group is used to winning. Our weaknesses are that we do not have much depth in the secondary, we are starting a brand new QB and we lost two 1,000-yard running backs which will be hard to replace.”

The special team unit will be anchored by the sure-footed Jon Alverson, who was 52-for-58 on extra points.

Gone are return matchups against Franklin County, Lincoln County and Paul Dunbar, but they will be replaced by two schools who have been strong in their respective classes over the last decade in Raceland (Class 1A) and Pulaski County (Class 5A).

The Jaguars are waiting for their matchup with Madison Southern on the road on Oct. 2. Although Bowlin said Madison Southern has quickly become a rival, East Jessamine will have no bigger rival than crosstown foe West Jessamine.

With the uncertainty of a season even happening due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bowlin says the consistency in his program from middle school on up will help in these ambiguous times.

“Our kids have used the same terminology and same rules for six years now,” he said. “The more chaos that is thrown at our preseason workout is actually in our favor. We work all year long on what we do and we don’t change much. Other teams may struggle with new concepts and coaching changes. We are as ready as we can be at this point.”

East Jessamine’s home field is dubbed “The Jungle” and whether it is at home or on the road, the Jaguars will be ready this season.

“Our program has the third round of the playoffs as our first goal to knock off,” said Bowlin. “We have knocked on that door three times in the past four seasons and come up short. We always want to win a district championship, but this chaotic season might be the year we get over the hump.”

Sept. 11 – PAINTSVILLE, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 – @ Raceland, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 – WEST JESSAMINE*, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 2 – @ Madison Southern*, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 9 – MARTHA LAYNE COLLINS*, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 16 – PULASKI COUNTY, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 23 – @ Woodford County*, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 30 – @ Western Hills, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 6 – @ Great Crossing, 7:30 p.m.
* = District Game


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