Football team brings size, experience to 2014 season

Scott Swanson

With a mixture of size, speed and experience, Sweet Home’s football program looks to be in a position it hasn’t enjoyed for the past several years.

What the Huskies need now is health, Head Coach Dustin Nichol said.

That’s because last year’s team was riddled by injuries, some of the most serious coming in the first three games or, in one case, before the season even started. The Huskies finished 4-6 overall, but 3-2 in league, which was enough to get them into the playoffs at Siuslaw, where they were mowed down 49-21 by an extremely efficient Viking team.

That was then and this is now.

“I’ve told these guys they have a chip on their shoulder,” Nichol said. “They were cheated a little bit in the way the injury ball bounced. They need to come back and own this season, go full-bore, don’t hold anything back because you never know when nothing will be there for you.”

The Huskies have lost a number of last year’s top players to graduation – MVP Austin Horner, a first-team all-league selection as both an offensive guard and a linebacker on defense; his twin brother Cole, who led the Huskies at quarterback for most of the season and made second team all-league at that position and as a linebacker; defensive lineman Ben Terry, also an all-league first-teamer and a second-team all-league selection at guard; as well as running back Spencer Knight, tight end and defensive back Ashton Stutzman and lineman Troy Hazelton.

But Nichol is optimistic about his team’s prospects.

“Right now I’m really happy with where we’re at,” he said. We’ve got a good group of kids across the line. I just need to get the linemen to be more aggressive. I think we’re talented in the backfield and the receiving corps.”

Offense

This year, Nichol said, Sweet Home will focus heavily on the Power I and pro formations, with some slot and receivers split out.

“We’ve been practicing spread stuff too,” he said. “You can’t be down by two touchdowns with five minutes left in the fourth quarter and just be running off-tackle. You have to be able to get some quick scores, you have to have some sort of spread or passing game in your package – otherwise you’re out of time.”

How much the spread enters the Huskies’ game plans will depend on development at the quarterback position, and the “quarterback’s comfort level in throwing the ball,” he said.

Quarterback: One of the biggest question marks going into last Friday’s jamboree at Scio was whether this year’s starter at quarterback would be senior Cole Ashcraft (5-9, 180) or 5-11, 170-pound junior Justin Tow.

After the trip to Scio, Nichol said that he’s decided to start Tow “for a long list of reasons” that include “athleticism” and size.

Suffice to say, quarterback will be a developing area of the Huskies’ game over the first few games.

Cole Horner played nearly all but one game, but it was a tough year for him, Nichol said.

“Last year, we had a young offensive line and it took us a while to get things going,” he said. “By the time we got the line shored up, Cole Horner got injured in the North Valley game. It was one of those situations where you get hit that way, it’s kind of tough to trust everybody in front of you again. The two years previously, he had good protection. Last year, when you look at the film, you can see him taking the shots.”

Ashcraft stepped in after Horner got hurt toward the end of the North Valley game, and then played the entire Sisters game, which gave him a chance to develop as a quarterback, Nichol said.

Tow, meanwhile, took all the reps, a least during the first three quarters of games, as JV quarterback.

Receivers: This is a strength for the Huskies, as their top two receivers, seniors Hunter Jutte (5-11, 175) and Eric Flierl (5-10 165), are back. Jutte returns after catching 12 touchdown passes last year, while Flierl finished with four.

Nichol said Flierl may not have had as many touchdowns, but “he set things up for Jutte. He caught a lot of key passes.”

One of the most memorable was at Elmira, where Flierl caught one and ran for 97 yards before being tackled on the one-yard line, which kept him from scoring what would have been the longest touchdown reception in school history.

“He’s a big-time playmaker,” Nichol said.

Backing them up are seniors Ryan R. Adams (5-10, 165) and Eric Burks (5-9, 160), junior Jesus Patricio (5-10, 170) and senior Kobe Galster (5-10, 160).

The Huskies also have two quality tight ends in 6-4 senior Brycen Mitten and 6-6 junior Tyler Plebuch.

“We just have to find ways to get those tall fellows the ball,” Nichol said. “They have to make defenses honor people going down the field.”

Also available at tight end is senior Patric Bell (6-0, 205).

Running Backs: Junior Brandon Keenon returns after leading the Huskies last year with 706 yards on 111 carries as a sophomore, which earned him All-League Honorable Mention recognition. Jutte and senior Kyler Gaskey are also in the mix to carry the ball, along with sophomore Keanue Aiona (5-7, 150), who, Nichol said, is “a tough kid.”

Gaskey (5-11, 180) is back after having to sit out last year while recovering from surgery.

At fullback, senior Kevin Seiber (5-10, 175) is back after breaking his leg at La Pine, which ended a season where he turned heads sufficiently to be named All-League Second-Team. Backing him up will be juniors George Rayborn (5-10, 210) and Garrison Whitfield (5-11, 175).

Offensive Line: “I’m excited about what we’ve got coming back,” Nichol said.

Senior Chris Melcher (5-10, 210) will start at center, with senior Brett Blachley (5-9, 160) and junior Gavin Baskin (6-1, 210) at guard, and juniors Eric Whitlow (5-11, 210) and Joel Holman (6-3, 255) at tackles.

Also in the mix is senior Shawn Worthen (6-0, 305) but Nichol said he may keep Worthen primarily on defense. Rounding out the depth on the line are seniors Jason Miller (5-9, 160) and Lane Oneal (6-1, 160).

“I think we’re going to make Sean Worthen a defensive nose specialist and just let him wreak havoc on the defensive side – 305 pounds of athleticism,” he said. “When you’ve got Worthen at 305 and Holman at 260 and Mitten at 230 and Baskin and Whitlow both around 230, 240, and Melcher at 210, you’ve got a big line. We just have to have them get an attitude where they’ll do some damage.”

Defense

Defensively, the Huskies could be “pretty dang good,” Nichol said.

“A big concern for me was finding replacements for the Horner boys at linebacker. Seiber was stepping up and doing a great job last year until the break.”

He said Seiber is picking up where he left off and “not being hesitant about his injury or anything. “He’s getting after it and being a good leader in the middle.”

The challenge, he said, will be taking the pressure off Seiber and other starters, who will start the season going both ways.

“I want development in these other positions so I can get other people starting,” Nichol said. “After the first series, we’ve got rotations going. There’s going to be a lot of football being played by everybody. It might be the same names out there for the first kickoff, kick return and the first series on offense or defense, but then right after that we’re subbing. The first series is to get people going, get them into the rotation.

“I’m really confident in our ones and twos on both sides of the ball. I’m really excited about what we’ve got cooking.

Defensive Line: That starts with the defensive line, which will be anchored by Worthen at nose tackle, with Mithen, Melcher, Baskin, Miller, Whitlow, and Holman, Ryan J. Adams and Jacob Maas (6-1, 180) adding depth.

“We’re three-deep with good kids at all positions, Nichol said. “It all comes down to health. These guys have a year’s experience under their belts. They kind of got worked over a little bit last year.”

Linebackers: Keenan, at outside linebacker, was named Honorable Mention All-League last year, but Nichol said he got “overlooked because of our record, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Everybody at our league meeting said they had to know who number 8 was because they ran away from number 8. Brandon just plays that position so naturally. As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the best strong safeties/outside linebackers in the state. He’s that kind of player. He knows football.”

He’s not alone. Gaskey, Blachley, Tow and junior Jake Long (5-6, 150) will also play the outside, though Blachley may also see action at inside linebacker, along with starters Ashcraft and Seiber. Backing them up will be Whitfield and junior Desmond Ely (5-9, 175), who both were “surprises” during the Huskies’ summer trip to Spokane for football camp at Whitworth University, Nichol said.

Ely, who is also turning heads at center, broke his thumb in daily doubles last year and didn’t play at all.

“He’s getting snaps. He’s doing a really good job there,” Nichol said.

Secondary: “We’re pretty deep right now at the secondary level,” Nichol said. “We have a mix of juniors and seniors who bring a lot of experience to the table.”

Ryan R. Adams and Flierl will start at the corners, while Jutte will play strong safety.

“Those guys had a really good camp,” the coach said. Backing them up will be Plebuch, Patricio and Burks, who will rotate as needed through the corners and safety positions.

The Schedule

Nichol said people have questioned the recent games against teams in Central Oregon – “why we travel so far, why we don’t stay local and play Stayton or Cascade, or North Marion or Philomath.”

The reason, he said, is that playing too many teams from the same league during the nonleague portion of the schedule can come back to bite the Huskies, as it did during his first year as head coach when Sweet Home played three teams out of the then-Valco League – Central, Taft and Stayton. Central wound up first in the league, but Stayton and Taft were at or near the bottom of the final standings and that hurt the Huskies.

“Our power ranking suffered because of that,” he said. “If you play teams in the same league, somebody’s going to be last, somebody’s going to be first. And in your power rankings, that really messes you up. Your rankings in the state go off of other teams’ records.

“So this power-ranking business forces us to go play multiple leagues. Well, to do that we have to travel.”

The other advantage of playing central or eastern Oregon teams is that Sweet Home often finds itself matched against teams from that region in the early rounds of the playoffs.

“Whether we win or lose, we can gauge those leagues a little bit as a test,” Nichol said. “So there is some reasoning behind the madness.”

The Huskies open this season at Crook County, on Friday, Sept. 5. The Cowboys moved from 5A to 4A several years ago, and Nichol said he expects a “true test.”

Once Sweet Home hits the league schedule, it could be a free-for-all, he said. Though he expects the biggest competition to come from Elmira, Cottage Grove and Junction City, in that order, any team in the league will be dangerous.

“I think the Sky-Em will be a pretty competitive league,” Nichol said. “I don’t think you can take anybody for granted.”

Cottage Grove, which lost to Ridgeview in the 4A final last year, has lost star quarterback Scotty Hitner, who threw for 5,417 yards in two years as a starter for the Lions, and talented receivers and linemen.

“With the spread offense, Gary Roberts will put something together,” Nichol said. “That’s a fun offense he’s got. I’m not sure where he’s at with transfers and open enrollment, but he’s a good coach. They’ll be competitive.”

Elmira has “a lot of returning players and got a couple of transfers,” he said, while Junction City welcomes back a large contingent of returnees from last year.

The Tigers have an “excellent” running back returning in Bryon Brown, he said.

“They’re pumped about what they did last year and I’m sure they think they were cheated out of a bunch of stuff and I think they figure they just overlooked SH and they beat themselves, thinking it was going to be easy,” he said, recalling the Huskies’ surprising 33-6 win at home.

“They didn’t realize what kind of a buzzsaw they were going to run into.”

He said he expects a different response this time, particularly since the game will be at Junction City.

Sisters and Sutherlin have new coaches, which makes them hard to figure.

“They are the dark horses,” Nichol said. “I’m not too sure how it’s going to go. In our league, each team has an equal opportunity to take first. It’s going to be very competitive.”

What the Huskies need to do is “play our game,” he said.

“We need to take one game at a time, one play at a time, one quarter at a time. Just do our job, the best that we can, and worry about ourselves. And if we do that, I thnk the little things will take care of the big thing and that’s the score at the end of the game.

“If we can work together as a team and distribute the ball unselfishly, all 11 guys stepping forward at the same time, we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”

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