CREVE COEUR — Robert Steeples knows they're in his locker room. He's not sure who they are. He doesn't even know what they'll do or when they'll do it. But if the De Smet football team is going to get where it wants to go, it'll need them.
The Spartans' coach, Steeples is on the lookout for the unsung heroes who can make or break a season.
“You've got some guys who have made a name for themselves but you know there's other guys, you don't know who yet, are going to step up and really contribute to the team,” Steeples said. “There's an excitement there.”
There is no better word to describe De Smet this fall than excitement. The Spartans return an overwhelming amount of talent and experience that has paid its dues on the varsity and finally saw the results it was looking for on the scoreboard. Many of this year's seniors were thrust into significant varsity roles as sophomores and the learning curve was harsh. De Smet went 1-9 in 2017.
Last season the switch flipped. De Smet finished 9-3 and the only teams to best it would go on to win the Class 6 championship (CBC) and the Class 5 championship (Vianney).
This season, the Spartans want to take the next step. The dues have been paid. The program's culture has shifted. De Smet is the No. 3 large school in the STLhighschoolsports.com preseason rankings.
It's quicker for Steeples to go over what the Spartans lost to graduation than what returned. The offensive line returns four starters and a fifth that played a lot. Senior tackle Sam Winter (6-foot-3, 250 pounds), junior tackle Brody Wisecraver (6-5, 300), junior guard Hutson Lillibridge (6-4, 295) and junior Mekhi Wingo (6-1, 280) are all back and ready to clear the way.
“It's awesome,” Winter said. “We're all really physical up front and thrive off of hearing pads pop, pancakes, it's all fun.”
The stable of running backs includes juniors Rico Barfield (6-0, 215), Taj Butts (5-11, 195) and Darez Snider (5-8, 175). The trio rushed for a combined 2,151 yards and scored 28 touchdowns with Snider accounting for 986 yards and 11 scores.
“We've got a group of unselfish backs that are microwaves and can get going when they need to,” Steeples said. “They also keep each other honest, too, because they're breathing down each others necks. We've got that same thing on the offensive line. There's a lot of able-bodied guys who can go out there and contribute.”
Senior receiver Jordan Johnson (6-2, 190) is the top-rated prospect in Missouri and the No. 4 wide receiver nationally according to recruiting services. He caught 28 passes for 721 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior. Junior Ra'shod Smith-Harvey (5-8, 155) caught 50 passes for 670 yards and six touchdowns.
For all the offense the Spartans return, the biggest question mark is quarterback. Nate Martens held down the job for three seasons before signing with Northern Iowa in the winter. Steeples said there are four guys in the mix for the job. Senior Michael Wheeler (6-1, 160) came in to relieve Martens last season in two games and helped the Spartans pull out victories. Wheeler completed eight of 11 passes for 133 yards and a score.
“His savvy is something I wish every quarterback that followed him could have,” Steeples said.
Senior AJ Fraser (6-5, 185) transferred to De Smet from Miramonte High in Orinda, California in the winter. He's verbally committed to Cornell. Junior Creighton Holmes (6-4, 175) is a dual threat that will figure into the offense, it's just a matter of where.
“He can play all over the field,” Steeples said.
Sophomore Seth Marcione (6-2, 195) transferred from Triad and brings a good arm and mobility.
De Smet's defense is loaded starting with the line. Senior tackle Armon Wallace (6-0, 285), Wingo and senior Lanell Carr (6-3, 230) combined for 140 tackles and 11 sacks last season. Wallace has verbally committed to Missouri State and Carr is bound for West Virginia.
“The heart of our team is going to be that box with the defensive line and the linebacking corps,” Steeples said.
The line and the linebackers worked well together last season and Jones doesn't see why that wouldn't be the case this season.
“Our D-line opens it up for us, it's fun,” Jones said. “We have to trust each other. If we know our plays and we trust each other, (this season will) be better.”
De Smet has been down a long, hard road and after years of work is now on the cusp of making it all the way back. Is this the year the Spartans break through?
“We have a lot of returning, good, solid players,” Winters said. “I think we're all pretty seasoned now and we're excited for the season.”