by Frank Aceto
Associate Sports Editor
For most football teams, the most indispensable position is the quarterback.
And many coaches would argue that the left tackle is right behind the signal caller in terms of importance.
The Tallmadge football team knows who will be the starter behind center.
His main protector? That will be the challenging part.
Senior 6-foot-8, 310-pound left tackle Ben Cipa, who recently was named an honorary team captain, broke his ankle recently and will most likely not play a down this season.
"Ben is our biggest and best lineman," Blue Devils head coach Joe Vassalotti said. "His loss changes things just a bit. We're scrambling right now."
Regardless, Tallmadge still believes it can compete with the best of them in the always talented Suburban League.
Last year, the Blue Devils finished 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the league. Vassalotti, who enters his 13th season (20th overall) with a 96-44 record (129-82 overall) at Tallmadge, would love to see his team win the Suburban League title.
After all, this will be the final year of the eight-team Suburban League.
Due to drastic changes during the offseason, the future Suburban League will feature 15 teams and two divisions.
That means the Blue Devils, who will play in the smaller-school division, will no longer play teams like Wadsworth and Nordonia in critical league games because they will be featured in the larger-school division.
"I have mixed emotions," the coach said. "For years, we have been the smallest school in the current eight-team setup and we won the league seven times in 10 years. We would love to win it again. I think the seniors have that goal of wanting to be league champs and go on a playoff run."
If Tallmadge's last hurrah in the Suburban League is going to be a memorable one, some first-year starters will have to take the next step.
The Blue Devils lost 11 starters from a year ago. Some of the biggest names were All-Ohio lineman Joe Lowery, who is playing football at Ohio University in Athens, running back Bobby Clark, who led the team with 1,281 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013, Damon Gidley (offensive lineman/linebacker), Logan Ray (wide receiver/defensive back) and Davis Moore (fullback/linebacker).
"We didn't lose too many in terms of numbers, but they were good, quality players," the coach said.
Fortunately, Tallmadge won't be lacking experience. A total of 23 letter winners, including 11 starters, return to the field in 2014.
"We've had good offseason participation throughout the winter, spring and summer," the coach said. "A lot of the guys played other sports, which kept them competitive and in shape."
The coach's son, senior Joseph Vassalotti, will enter is second year as the team's starting quarterback.
The younger Vassalotti completed 47.5 percent of his passes for 1,402 yards. He threw 12 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
"There is nothing like game experience," the coach said. "Joseph is more of an inside running threat for our offense. The defense has to account for him. That could benefit us."
Senior Latrele Moore could be the Blue Devils' most exciting player. Moore reached the end zone five times last year with 167 yards on just 13 carries and 14 receptions for 198 yards. Moore also is expected to be one of the team's starting defensive backs.
Senior captain Joe Siesel is another returning starter at defensive back. He is expected to be one of the team's starting receivers too and is Tallmadge's backup quarterback.
The two other senior captains are John Zolton (offensive guard/linebacker) and Jacob Mertus (defensive back/wide receiver). Another team captain is junior Steven Taylor, who is expected to start on both the offensive and defensive lines.
Other key returning seniors are Travis Darago (offensive/defensive lineman), Jason Wiebrecht (tight end/outside linebacker), who missed a majority of last season with a leg injury, John Rensel (tight end/punter), who missed a majority of last season with a knee injury, CJ Berg (running back), Quinntin Teeling (defensive back/wide receiver), Dylan Skraba (fullback/defensive lineman), Logan Dawson (offensive/defensive lineman) and Justin Brown (lineman/kicker).
Also returning are junior defensive back Ned Spragling and sophomore running back/outside linebacker Nate Adolph.
Now let's get back to the original question: Who will take Cipa's spot at left tackle?
It looks like that role will fall to 6-5, 280-pound two-way lineman Jake Whitehurst, who played right tackle last year.
Vassalotti also has high hopes for seniors Cian Kelly (defensive back/wide receiver), Jacob Lahtonen (offensive/defensive lineman) and Dylan Connor (running back/defensive lineman), who hasn't played football since eighth grade; and junior Craig Dilworth (defensive back/running back).
While the Blue Devils have a number of key pieces, the biggest question marks are the play of the offensive line and the running backs.
"We need to find guys who can create holes and replacing Bobby Clark will be big shoes to fill," the coach said. "It's wide open at running back."
The rest of the coaching staff features Jason Shaw (running backs/defensive backs), David Stayzak (offensive/defensive lines/kicking), Justin Christopher (tight ends/linebackers), Glen Kruger (defensive coordinator), Mark Cuva (volunteer), a former Tallmadge quarterback who played in the 1990s, Dan Davies (volunteer/quarterbacks), Mike Duve (volunteer/conditioning) and Augie Montz (offensive/defensive lines), who enters is first year with the team.
"Augie spent the last couple of seasons at Cloverleaf," the coach said. "I feel fortunate to have him. He has a lot of good ideas."
Tallmadge plans on using a mixture of the I-formation and the spread.
The offense plans to feature a balanced attack of running and passing.
The Blue Devils' defense, with seven starters returning, has less question marks than the offense.
Tallmadge plans to go with what Joe Vassalotti calls a "50 shade" defense.
"It's closely related to a 5-2," he said. "At times, it will look like a 4-3. I like our defense. Right now, it's ahead of our offense."
As always, the Suburban League is expected to be very competitive.
"Nordonia is really good and Highland is good despite losing a lot to graduation," the coach said.
"Wadsworth and Green are right there and Copley has a new coach and new enthusiasm. I think the team to watch is Revere."
Injuries are inevitable in football. Such a fact isn't lost on Joe Vassalotti. But if Tallmadge is going to turn some heads, the team will need to avoid any more catastrophic injuries.
"Staying healthy is the most important thing," the coach said. "If we have too many significant injuries like the one Ben had, it would be hurtful.
"The key for us is the play on both sides of the line. The offensive line sets up everything else and the defensive line makes the defensive backs and linebackers better."
Joe Vassalotti certainly wishes he had a healthy Cipa on his roster. But that's not going to happen.
At this point, all he and his players can do is move forward.
"I hope we're not feeling sorry for ourselves because we don't have Ben Cipa," the coach said. "We need some linemen to fill that void."
The Blue Devils are scheduled to open the season at Ravenna Aug. 29 at 7 p.m.