Canisius High School expects nothing less than a state championship after last season, entering this one as the only defending state champion in Western New York.
The Crusaders re-stocked their offense with a trio of playmakers in wide receiver and Rutgers commit Paul Woods, quarterback Jayce Johnson and running back Kenyatta Huston. All three factored heavily in last season's New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association tournament title run, each returning for one more season with expectations of a repeat.
Johnson, the basketball team's starting point guard, will be the first quarterback to start two seasons under seventh-year head coach Rich Robbins. Woods, whose frame may not be up to Big Ten standards yet, is a wiry, explosive threat on the outside. Huston is a dynamic runner out of the backfield. Canisius returns seven starters on offense compared to three on defense. While Robbins expects youth on the latter side of the ball to be up to snuff, it's his big names that will likely carry the Crusaders if they're to return to the top.
"Everybody knows about Paul and Kenyatta and Jayce," Robbins said Monday afternoon, "so our offense right now is obviously, with six, seven guys back, I think that’s a strong point for us."
— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) August 14, 2017
Canisius faces a daunting schedule, including several out-of-state trips and a hefty gauntlet away from home. The road begins Sept. 1 at Rochester-area Pittsford. Johnson knows he'll be the starting signal-caller, Woods the go-to wideout and Huston the primary backfield threat, Robbins said, but the challenge is avoiding complacency with all three virtually locked into the top of the depth chart already.
Each prong of the Crusaders' three-headed offensive attack faces the challenge of not only preparing themselves for college football life - Woods is the only one committed, but the other two have interest from several Division I schools - but also leading a team.
"We have an experience with winning states and going out and winning games," Woods said. "We gotta trickle down to our younger guys."
"They were great players last year, but that year of body development between 16, 17, 18, the year of film study and classroom work and going to camps and working out and they’ve all gained 10-15 pounds of muscle," Robbins said. "And they’re seniors now."
Johnson feels looser at the beginning of this year's camp since he doesn't have to think about whether or not he'll be the starter behind center. That, he said, makes it easier to focus wholly on bringing everyone around him up to speed rather than worrying about whether he'll get the job or not.
"I’m the first in Coach Robbins’ era," Johnson said. "It’s definitely less stress off my shoulders knowing that I am the starter going into camp instead of last year, knowing I was going to be the starter going into the first game. It’s much less to worry about and just having to prepare everyone else."
The pieces are in place for Canisius' offense to explode again. On paper, the Crusaders seem likely to repeat both locally and at the state level. Now comes the task of living up to the hype, which rests mainly on the shoulders of the three offensive cornerstones.