In other words, Cherokee needs its linemen to step up to remain one of the favorites in the Burlco/Olympic American race and South Jersey Group 4.
The talent is there. Ditto the size.
Cherokee's offensive line features veterans Jon Turner (6-foot, 255 pounds) and Ben Lebedine (6-0, 255) as tackles and Dean Barr (5-11, 245) at center.
Turner, a three-year starter who anchors the offensive and defensive lines, was slowed by an MCL sprain in the preseason. Mehigan is hoping he is ready for tonight's intriguing, inter-division home opener against Shawnee.
Junior A.J. Valentine (5-11, 170) and sophomore Tyler Powell (6-0, 180) are blossoming running backs who figure to get a bulk of the carries.
Richardson, the sturdy, 6-2 1/2, 220-pound quarterback, gives Cherokee another dimension. He rushed for 552 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and scored eight touchdowns in 2006.
"He gives us a dual threat," said Payne, a fleet 6-3, 215-pounder who figures to be Richardson's favorite target. "If no one's open, he can make his read and take off. I know I would hate to play defense against Demetrius."
Richardson completed 60 of 137 passes for 1,117 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall. He has scholarship offers from Connecticut, Villanova, Eastern Kentucky, Delaware State and Howard. He said he's leaning toward Villanova, but is strongly considering Connecticut because it plays in the same conference (Big East) as Rutgers.
"Rutgers has kind of fallen off in recruiting me, and I'd like to get a little payback," he said, adding that Penn State, Maryland and Iowa also are showing interest.
Payne, the Inquirer's all-South Jersey kick returner last season, has received several offers, with Iowa, Clemson, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Temple among the suitors.
Cherokee's defense, according to Payne, "has been setting the tone" in practice.
The Chiefs, who shared the '06 American title with Pennsauken, Eastern and Washington Township, return six defensive starters: Payne, Turner, cornerbacks Chris Steliga and Valentine, safety Pat White and linebacker Matt Della Vecchia. The Chiefs also have several returning letterwinners who will have increased roles this season, including defensive backs Nikko Groomes and Major Mobley, and linebackers Don Tran and Taylor Maciow.
Cherokee is looking to use the memory of last season's sectional final, a 27-26 loss to Absegami, as a motivator this season.
"We left things unfinished in the championship game," Richardson said. "We didn't finish the game strong. This year, we have to finish."
Mehigan, owner of a 42-14 record in five seasons at Cherokee, has carried on the Chiefs' winning tradition established by Jim Horner (1976 to 1988) and continued by John Scott (1989 to 2001). During most of those seasons, Cherokee has been among South Jersey's elite gridiron programs.
Don't expect that trend to end anytime soon.
Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at 215-854-5181
Listed in predicted order of finish.
Players to watch: The Chiefs revolve around exciting senior quarterback Demetrius Richardson, who is just as effective as a runner or passer, and wide receiver/defensive back/kick returner Lynell Payne. Two-way tackle Jon Turner (6-foot, 255 pounds), tackle Ben Lebendine (6-0, 255) and center Dean Barr (5-11, 245) lead a potentially devastating offensive line.
What to watch: The offense has playmakers and the defense is superb, but Cherokee must develop a running game if it's going to stay among South Jersey's elite. Running backs A.J. Valentine and Tyler Powell impressed in the preseason and look ready to step to the forefront. They could combine with Richardson to give Cherokee three dangerous running threats.
Outlook: Coach P.J. Mehigan's Chiefs are the favorite in one of the area's best leagues.
Players to watch: Massive two-way tackle Isaiah Martin (6-4, 285) anchors the Indians' lines. He has drawn interest from Villanova, Delaware and Delaware State. Other key players include linebacker/running back Corey Henderson (5-11, 190), linebacker/running back Deron Hall (6-0, 195), guard Najee Johnson (6-2, 275) and wide receiver Malik Jamison (5-10, 180).
What to watch: Pennsauken is blessed with speed, especially on defense, where the quickness and strength of its front seven could turn games. On the flip side, the Indians are inexperienced on the offensive line. That group needs to emerge for Pennsauken to climb to the top of the division.
Reggie Lawrence's Indians will rely heavily on quarterback Cornell Jones, a 6-3, 190-pound junior who has a strong arm and is a dangerous runner. Hall and speedy Talir Satterfield-Rowe (5-9, 165) are talented running backs.
Outlook: The Indians, who shared the crown with Cherokee, Eastern and Washington Township last season, should be in the title hunt.
Players to watch: Junior fullback Brandon Colavita (5-10, 215), who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year, figures to carry the load for the Minutemen. Colavita, wide receiver Matt Bosnjak (6-1, 185), center Nick Walls (6-2, 260), guard Kwabena Keene (6-0, 230), linebacker Dan Hearn (5-9, 220) and cornerback Keith Schrumpf (5-8, 160) are returning starters.
What to watch: Will the Minutemen's 0-4 finish (after a 6-0 start) have a carryover effect this season?
Washington Township has just six starters back, but there is enough incoming talent - including senior quarterback Steve Graziano and two-way junior back Skyler Robinson - for the Minutemen to make another title run. Township has one of South Jersey's most respected programs, having strung together 20 winning seasons in a row.
Outlook: If the newcomers blossom, coach Mark Wechter's Minutemen will make a division title run. They also will be in the Group 4 playoff picture.
Cherry Hill East
Players to watch: Cherry Hill East, which went 6-4 last year to record its first winning season since 1995, is hoping to continue the momentum under new coach Tom Coen. Coen, who played at East in the 1980s, returns to his alma mater for his second coaching stint. He also was a head coach at Pennsauken (1997-2002) and an assistant at Eastern the last four seasons.
East will be led by standout linebacker Mark Wickware (6-2, 220), a senior who is drawing Division I interest. He could start at quarterback. Other important contributors include two-way tackle Mike Marini (6-3, 250), and two-way linemen Dereck Satchell (6-4, 235), Kaleef King (6-4, 285) and Howard Furman (6-0, 215).
What to watch: The offensive line has the size - and talent - to win battles in the trenches. The development of running backs Kevin Lambe and Josh Langford will be a key.
Outlook: The Cougars dropped a heartbreaking, 21-20 playoff loss to eventual champion Absegami last year. East is hopeful of returning to the playoffs. Graduation took its toll, so East will have a difficult task.
Players to watch: Coming off a 5-5 season that included wins in its final four games, the Indians have an experienced offense that will feature running back Tom Doulong, a 5-10, 180-pound senior who gained 853 yards and scored seven TDs last year. Other vets include two-way lineman Justin Moore (6-2, 235), wide receiver/cornerback Patrick Meeres (5-11, 165), offensive tackle Derrick Brown (6-3, 245), tight end Christian Bendyna (6-0, 195) and running back Kyle Gardner (5-11, 195).
What to watch: There are enough veterans - especially on offense - to help Lenape make more strides and notch its first winning season since 2002. The defense is a little green and will need young players to step up. Linebacker Steve Colangelo and defensive back Andre Lawhorn are the mainstays.
Outlook: Coach Greg Harvey's Indians are the most overlooked team in the school district, one that includes expected powerhouses Cherokee, Shawnee and Seneca. Could this be the year Lenape breaks through? Only if the defense rises to the challenge.
Players to watch: Senior Bryant White, who averaged 5 yards per carry in 2006, is the go-to player in Eastern's no-huddle attack. Coached by Dan Spittal, Eastern will be counting heavily on safety Joe Delaney, middle linebacker Ken Fowlkes (5-11, 220), offensive lineman Dan Cosenza (6-2, 240) and wide receiver/punter Adam Frater.
What to watch: Junior Logan Ryan, a dependable wide receiver a season ago, appears to have won the job at quarterback. Look for him to gain yards running the option. Also, keep an eye on nose tackle Jan Guinto, a 5-9, 238-pounder who is the team's strongest player. Sophomore linebacker/running back Tyler Knoblauch (5-11, 175) is a promising transfer from St. Joseph's Prep (Pa. )
Outlook: The Vikings have inexperience at most of the skill positions, but should be much improved toward the latter stages of the season.
Players to watch: Senior quarterback Jake Harris and tight end Seth Cardene (6-1, 230) lead the offense. Last year, Harris completed 29 of 72 passes for 416 yards, four TDs and seven interceptions. The Red Devils, coached by Sam Jenkins, are counting on junior running back Carlton Koonce (5-9, 180), senior two-way back Andre Hannah (5-10, 195) and running back/linebacker Darius Jackson to contribute immediately.
What to watch: The offensive line was decimated by graduation, so the season's fortunes will depend on how quickly the line is rebuilt. New assistant Bruce Lazaruk, a former head coach at three schools, will lead the reformation project. Kyle Morrison, a 5-10, 220-pound junior center, is a letterwinner who figures to be the leader. Two-way end Evan Ferrell (6-2, 235) and safety Justin Price should play key roles.
Outlook: The Red Devils, who are trying to show improvement from the last four seasons (4-35 combined record), would do well to escape the basement in this powerhouse division.
- Sam Carchidi