Football Preview: John Curtis looks to regain championship form

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Buddy Taylor, John Curtis
(Photo: Parker Waters)

It isn’t as though John Curtis Christian has suddenly gone from the monolith of prep football in Louisiana to an also-ran.

The Patriots remain one of the top, elite programs in the state, despite the fact that they have won just one state championship since moving up to Division I status in 2014.

That came in 2018.

It is not as though John Curtis has not been a threat to win it all. They have reached the final four every year they have participated in Division I.

The Patriots reached the semifinals last season, as they did in 2015, 2016 and 2019.

They lost in the title game in both 2014 and 2017.

Legendary John Curtis head coach J.T. Curtis enters his 53rd year on the job.

Curtis is a member of the National High School Football Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, the Allstate Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame and the Louisiana College Sports Hall of Fame.

Those honors have come despite the fact that Curtis is still active, alive and kicking.

In fact, Curtis, with a good season, is poised to become just the second coach in United States history to reach the magical 600 victory mark.

Curtis finds himself with an overall record of 598-76-6, needing just two wins to get to the mark.

In fact, Curtis is just 24 wins short of becoming the winningest coach in United States history.

John McKissick, who passed away in 2019, posted a 621-155-3 record in 62 seasons (1952-2014) at Summerville High in South Carolina. McKissick won 10 state championships.

J.T. Curtis has won 26 state championships officially, 27 on the field, including a title in 2013 that was taken away which Curtis is still appealing.

“The day that I don’t look forward to being on the field is when I will stop,” Curtis said. “The players that give so much, especially here in the heat in August, they deserve your very best. The day I don’t feel I can do that, I will step aside. I still have the burning desire to coach and I am anxious to start the season.”

The 2020 season was a challenge against an extremely difficult schedule in the midst of a pandemic.

In an unusual twist, while the Patriots narrowly lost in the Division I semifinals, they lost five games, posting a 6-5 overall record. The five losses were the most in a season for John Curtis since J.T. Curtis started the program in 1969, going 0-10.

“As a coach, the thing that I want is for my players to compete and give their very best effort,” Curtis said. ‘Our record did not show it but our players competed to the wire in every game and at practice. They overcame a lot of adversity, including injuries. The kicking game was a real issue which we are correcting.”

Curtis is determined to change that dynamic in 2021.

The Patriots return just nine starters from a year ago but six are on offense.

That includes the most important player in senior quarterback Buddy Taylor (6-1, 170).

Last season, Taylor threw for over 800 yards and six touchdowns and he rushed for 801 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“When Buddy is healthy, he can make plays with his feet and his arm and I think that will make a difference as our offense progresses and grows,” Curtis said. “I feel good about his leadership. He’s been under the gun against outstanding competition and he competed even when he was hurt last year. I think that speaks volumes about him.”

At running back, junior Patrick LeBranch (5-8, 175) returns and he will be joined in the veer two-back look by sophomore Marlon Prout (5-7, 150) and by a talented senior in Jakorey Lee (6-1, 190). LeBranch rushed for 445 yards and a pair of scores in 2020.

“LeBranch is experienced and has been productive and will continue to improve as a speed threat and he can spot outside at wide receiver to use his speed,” Curtis said. “Prout is fast and we expect Jakorey to have a breakout season,” Curtis said.

At wide receiver, sophomore Jason Gabriel (5-10, 175) returns and has an excellent future ahead of him while senior Carl Wilson (6-2, 210) steps into the starting lineup.

Another key is the return of senior Javon Davis (6-1, 185), who led Curtis in receiving a year ago but will spend much of his time on defense this year to help an inexperienced secondary. Davis caught 31 passes for 370 yards and five touchdowns last season.

“Davis will still play some but he will concentrate on defense,” Curtis said. “He can make plays and is a two-year starter at wide receiver. Carl has had a great summer. He is a big, strong receiver. He came out of track and can really run as well. Gabriel is a player who can make plays. He has good speed and body control. He can play running back as well.”

A real plus is the return of junior tight end Justin Brooks (6-3, 240), a big target in the passing game and a simply outstanding blocker.

“Justin is big and strong and can really block and he can catch it and run with it,” Curtis said. “We like to use our tight ends and we expect a big year from him.”

Up front, the Patriots have a pair of returning starters in junior left guard Aden Laborde and junior center Nick Dalferes. The new starters include junior left tackle Josh Teague, senior right guard Kaleb Schexnayder (5-11, 220) and sophomore right tackle Brandon Dang.

“It is not a big group in terms of physical size but it is an athletic group,” Curtis said. “They work really well together and the line has a chance to be a good one for us. They may not be real big but they are physical.”

The defense has nine new starters.

Up front, senior Shavon Lane (6-3, 285) returns to anchor the front and he will be joined by senior Trey Norman.

“Lane returns and Norman is solid,” Curtis said. “They can both really help us. Both got experience last year because of injuries and played more than they likely expected. It should pay off for them this year.”

The linebacker spot will be big and physical, continuing a long tradition at John Curtis.

Senior Connor Orgeron (6-1, 210) is a four-year starter who started his freshman and sophomore year at tight end before moving to inside linebacker a year ago. Junior Justin Horne (6-0, 200) will be the running mate at the inside spot for Orgeron.

On the outside, senior Gared Washington (6-2, 240) and junior Austin Ackel (6-3, 200) are the starters.

“We have good size at linebacker and we have experience in Orgeron and Washington and good athleticism,” Curtis said. “Justin is an excellent athlete who can run. He was a very good hurdler in track. Ackel can play inside or outside and he is competitive kid, as we saw in baseball this past season.”

The secondary features Davis, a superb athlete, who will play free safety. Senior Layton Esteves is the strong safety and junior Blake Wibel (5-10, 160) will play the nickel spot. The corners are junior Robert Gordon and sophomore Jamal Callio.

“Davis will certainly be our best player,” Curtis said. “It is a young group in terms of experience but they are not young, age-wise. It will just take a little time for them to grow into the positions. I thought they matured and improved in the summer.”

The kicking game, normally a staple strength of John Curtis Christian, was anything but a strength a year ago, regularly coming up short in shocking fashion for a Curtis team.

“I take full responsibility for the kicking game failures of a year ago,” Curtis said. “We are determined to make sure that does not happen again and feel confident it will not. We have always stressed that area and are doing so this year.”

The Patriots have spent the entire offseason working to correct the issue.

The new kicker is Jaden Alphonso while the punter is Tucker Tevepaugh.

The season opens on Sept. 3 on the road at Central Lafourche before traveling to Shreveport for the Battle on the Border to take on Oxford, Mississippi.

District 9-5A play opens against St. Augustine on Sept. 25 before the Patriots venture out of district to take on Male High of Louisville, Kentucky.

The remainder of the schedule is against district foes, starting with Archbishop Shaw on Oct. 8, followed by Jesuit, Holy Cross, Archbishop Rummel and Brother Martin.

“Oxford will be a very tough challenge and Male is really good,” Curtis said. “The district will be highly competitive and I don’t see a team in the district that cannot beat another team. It is pretty well balanced, across the board, perhaps more so than in the past.”

The latter pair defeated the Patriots last season. The five losses were the most by a Curtis team since his first season in 1969, the first season of the program when the Patriots went 0-10.

Based on form and history, the clear thought process is that the record will be better in 2021 and that the Patriots, if the defense can mature, will absolutely challenge for the Division I state title.

“I think staying healthy is going to be such an important part of it,” Curtis said. “If we can stay healthy and give our quarterback a chance to do the things he does well, I think we can make a run at the district title and get in the playoff and see what happens.”


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