ST. JAMES — Juwuane Sandridge says he doesn’t mind if people look at him a little funny.
“I’m blessed,” he said. “I’m in the position I wanted and I have a group of kids who are working hard. I think we are going to surprise some people.”
That’s when the sidelong glances and the index finger circling around the temple starts.
Sandridge is the new head football coach at Saint James School, replacing Chris Milmoe, who became the athletic director. But he enters a program that will be as new as the bleachers that are being replaced on the home sideline.
“We lost 22 starters from last year,” Sandridge said.
If you’re keeping count, there are 11 players who start on each side of the ball. Two times 11 is 22. And one of those players doubled as the kicking specialist.
It makes Mother Hubbard look like a hoarder. But for Sandridge, he can truly call this a new era in Saints football.
First, he is a former Saint James player who spent five years as an assistant — the offensive coordinator last year — before getting his chance. Then, he has a slew of fresh faces, psyched to get playing time and shock the world while running completely changed offensive and defensive systems.
“It all depends on how you look at it,” Sandridge said. “You can say we’re in for a long season or it is going to be a tough situation early. I think this is a great situation. We’ve got a group that could be great when they are seniors, but they want to win now. They are young kids who don’t care that they don’t have any experience.”
There may not be a fresher face on Saint James’ roster than starting quarterback Bobby Brennan, who comes in as a sophomore to run a new, spread-style offense.
“We met two-three days a week to work on the quarterback system,” Sandridge said. “He’s OK with it. He will have to make a lot of quick reads. I want him to get out there and think like I do.”
The Saints will be looking to run a passing attack that is anchored with an efficient ground game to keep opposing defenses honest. The receiving corps will be headed by Kevin Manesh and Alex Wingerd, while Justin Pank will take over the brunt of the ground attack.
“Manesh is the most experienced player we have on the team,” Sandridge said. “Last year we had a senior receiving corps, but he got a lot of time as the backup. He knows he’s the man this year and is OK with that.
“Pank played JV last year, but he is strong with a tough nose. He has the speed to the outside, but he loves to go in and run you over when he can. He will get the short, tough yards. We also have Luke Hart, who is one of our leaders as a junior and will be a running back and cornerback. He’s very athletic.”
The offensive line will be anchored by left tackle Brady Burker, guard John Stephens and center Robert Younger.
“Burker is very strong and plays well when he is upset. We will be running behind him a lot,” Sandridge said. “Stephens isn’t a prototypical guard. We are going to get him out in space to use his speed. Younger missed the first six games last year with a broken ankle, but he is solid and is one of our leaders.”
Saint James will be using a defense with multiple looks, but it will all revolve around Oladipo Sadipe, who will be the middle linebacker, but is new to the job and the sport.
“We just found out that he was coming over from (England) and he’s a monster,” Sandridge said. “He’s an ex-rugby player and he hits anything. He anchors the defense, but we are working on his reads and drops. A lot of these guys don’t know him, but he is making a lot of friends with the way he plays.”
Stephens and Pank will join Sadipe at linebacker.
Manesh will lead the secondary at cornerback while Kyle Titus-Glover will start at free safety.
“Manesh will be our lockdown corner. He is confident and talks back there,” Sandridge said. “Kyle got a lot of playing time early last season and he has good hands and can read quarterbacks. We feel real good about having Manesh and Glover back there.”
The defensive line will revolve around Younger, Henry Smith and Jack Fowler.
“Smith is a strong, aggressive kid and will play right guard and nose guard,” Sandridge said. “Fowler is tall and strong and is getting better every day.”
Ryan Abbott will take over the kicking duties, filling the void left when three-year starter Tommy Wagner graduated. “He saw the opening and went after it,” Sandridge said. “He went to some camps this summer and he is kicking the ball probably farther than Tommy did as a sophomore.”
Sandridge might be crazy by football standards, but he isn’t above playing a little possum to get the Saints off the ground this season.
“Teams are going to look at us and see what we lost, see our size and say we are rebuilding,” he said. “That’s what we want them to think. These guys are strong and they want to hit. I don’t know how that will translate to wins. Our main goal is to win the MAC. It’s our approach that we are going to win. I can’t tell the players that they are going to go out there and not win. That’s not what we want.”