SH football taking new direction

Scott Swanson

Sweet Home’s football program, now in its fourth year under Coach Dustin Nichol, is looking to change direction this season – literally.

Long a power football team, as they were last year with running back Wade Paulus, who was named Sky-Em League MVP, plowing up the middle behind behemoth tackle Zack “Big” Gill and his brethren on the line for a near-season school record 2,087 yards, the Huskies are reinventing themselves.

They’re moving away from the pro set and Power I formations that they’ve been known for, to the Pistol offense, a hybrid of the traditional shotgun and single-back offenses that has become particularly popular with teams that emphasize speed over brawn. The formation makes a quarterback a threat to run the ball, one of three options he has on virtually every play – the others are to hand off to a running back or pass.

The loss of 16 seniors from last year’s team makes this a good time to change directions for Nichol, who has 10 seniors on this year’s roster, plus 16 juniors, many with considerable varsity experience. Rounding out the 30-man team are four sophomores.

“We have a lot of new kids,” Nichol said. “They haven’t played together since they were freshmen because different ones were playing at different levels.

“We were senior-dominated last year. We had underclassmen in the rotation, but seniors started. I’m hoping that the underclassmen got the experience they need to step in this year.”

The team took 20 players to football camp at Whitworth College in late June, which proved to be a good opportunity to bond and build confidence, he said.

“The kids worked together and we got a lot done to prepare for the upcoming season.”

Nichol’s philosophy of developing talent young, whenever he believes youngsters are ready for the varsity experience, is coming home to roost at the quarterback position this year as senior Cole Horner (6-0, 195) comes in for his third year as varsity signal caller.

Horner, a second team all-league quarterback las year, threw for 782 yards last year, with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions, completing 48 percent of his 91 passes. Nichol said he wants to see double that many touchdowns this year.

“Cole is doing really well,” he said. “He’s progressing as well as a third-year quarterback should. He’s not a rookie any more, so there should be more pressure put on him and by him this year.

“We want to open up the running game a little more. Instead of eight guys in the box, going man on us, we want to see a connection between him and the receivers going.”

Missing from this season’s line-up is Mitch Keenon, who caught the lion’s share of those passes, 25, before graduating last year, but Nichol said he expects this year’s receivers to bring a whole new attack option to the Sweet Home offense.

“We have some pretty quick receivers,” he said of juniors Hunter Jutte (5-9, 160), Ryan Adams (5-10, 165) and Eric Flierl (5-10, 155), and senior Austin Rice (5-10, 165). “They are good ones. They’re fast and they have good hands. They’re a legitimate passing threat.

“We’re hoping to pass out of our game plan instead of out of necessity. We want to double the 10 or 12 passes per game we threw last year.”

Also a threat as a receiver is junior Brycen Mitten (6-3, 190) at tight end, who is “doing a great job.”

The backfield also has speed, Nichol said. Senior Spencer Knight (5-10, 195) is back after rolling up 553 yards on 73 carries (7.6 yards/carry) as a backup to Paulus.

Knight, who was named second team all-league at the position, barely missed a berth at the state track meet last spring, placing a close third in the district 100-meter finals, but the time he ran at district would have placed him in the top three in the state final. Gone to graduation are the Cottage Grove and Elmira runners who beat Knight in that district race – both by less than three-tenths of a second – so he’s definitely among the fastest runners in the league this fall.

“Spencer worked really hard during the off-season,” Nichol said. “We’re going to try to utilize his speed and quickness to break some arm tackles and get some yards and points. We’re expecting him to have a good season.”

Sophomore Brandon Keenon (5-10, 165) and junior Kevin Seiber (5-10, 170) will also be running and blocking out of the backfield, he said.

“Brandon will be the starter. He had a good camp at Whitworth.”

Up front, the Huskies are not small.

“We have some good-sized linemen but they haven’t played together much,” Nichol said.

Anchoring the line will be junior Shawn Worthen (6-0, 281) at right tackle and newcomer Michael Moser, a 6-3, 250-pound senior playing his first year of high school football, at left tackle.

Moser played two years of water polo before taking last year off from athletics, but said he’s decided to get back on the field.

Moser went to the Whitworth camp, which helped him nail down a starting position, despite his inexperience, Nichol said.

“That has helped him come along. He got a lot of reps at camp. It gave him that jump start to some better opportunities at left tackle.”

Worthen is “fast” and “athletic” at the other tackle position, he said.

At guards are seniors Ben Terry (5-10, 210) and Austin Horner (5-10, 215), both of whom have played regularly at those positions since they were sophomores – Horner as a two-year starter and the only junior on the team named first team all-league in any position, and junior Chris Melcher (5-9, 205) taking over for his departed brother Nate at center.

On defense, the Huskies are planning to employ a 4-4 defense, which puts more emphasis on the secondary – particularly the linebackers. Back this year are both Horners, who will start at the middle linebacker spots, backed up with Jutte and Rice at the safety spots and Flierl and Weld at the corners.

“I think our defense is going to surprise a lot of people,” Nichol said. “We’re fast, from the linebackers back to the second and third level. On the line we’re pretty big.”

Mitten and Knight will start at the end positions, with Worthen and Terry at tackles.

Stutzman and Keenon will start at the outside linebacker spots, but Nichol emphasized that there’s going to be plenty of rotating going on, with younger players getting time on the field.

“It’s going to be safety- and cornerback-by-committee,” he said.

Stutzman broke his collarbone at the Whitworth camp, but he’s surprised everybody with the speed and dedication he’s shown in his recovery.

“I’m proud of him,” Nichol said, “But we don’t want to injure him in the first game, so we’re going to limit his playing. We want him ready to go for league.”

Two junior transfers, Shane Rivera (5-11, 160) from Stayton and Patrick Bell (6-0, 169) from California, are also expected to contribute, particularly on defense, Rivera in the secondary and Bell at the end positions on both offense and defense.

The Huskies are talented and just need to gel, Nichol said.

Also, because most of last year’s starters are gone, the team needs leaders.

“We need to find someone who builds character and doesn’t tear things down,” he said.

“More importantly, they have to develop faith that the guy next to them is going to do his job. If everybody out there takes care of their own job, the big things will take care of themselves.”

The Huskies opened Friday night with Redmond (see page 12) and they’re not backing down over the next two weeks, with games against Banks and North Valley, both at home. Nichol said he expects both teams to finish high in their conferences.

A similarly tough schedule last year, with those pre-season games on the road, set the Huskies up for the playoffs because 5A Division Redmond, despite beating Sweet Home 35-0, finished its regular schedule undefeated and both North Valley and Banks also did well.

“With the (OSAA) power rankings, you don’t want to have a soft preseason schedule,” Nichol said. “That game against Redmond moved us up to No. 4 in the power rankings instead of No. 5 or 6. That helped us get home field advantage throughout the playoffs as long as we won.”

Also on the schedule is Central, regularly a power in the area and a team Nichol said he’s eager to keep playing for as long as possible.

“Shane Hedrick has a good program up there. It’s a good test for us because they’re consistently a good program, with spikes of greatness. It’s always been a good rivalry, since the 1980s. Over 30 years – that’s a good rivalry.”

Nichol said he expects the Sky-Em competition to be “tough.” He said if he had to vote for another team as No. 1, it would be Cottage Grove or Elmira.

The Lions are led by 6-3, 195-pound senior quarterback Scotty Hitner, considered by many to be one of the top five signal-callers in Oregon this year, after throwing for 3,425 yards and scoring 50 all-purpose TD’s, making him the state’s leading passer in total yards last season. Hitner is getting serious attention from college recruiters and was one of the invitees at the Northwest College Showcase at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Wash. in July.

“Anybody who throws for 3,000 yards and 32 touchdowns has to have some impact,” Nichol said.

Elmira has Bo Highburger, a second-team all-state linebacker last year, and the fourth-place finisher, behind Knight (by four-hundredths of a second), in the district 100-meter final last spring. Highburger is expected to be a top running back for the Falcons.

“He’s a Division I prospect,” Nichol said. “If they put a line together that he can run behind, they’ll be good.”

Sisters, La Pine and Junction City all have new coaches and new systems, he said, so he can’t tell exactly what to expect from those teams.

That means Sweet Home has its work cut out for it.

“We are trying to work the bugs out of the new stuff that we’re going to be doing,” Nichol said. “We were getting pretty predictable and we’re trying to break that.

“I think the challenge for our players is they don’t know exactly what they’ve got. They know they’ve done quite well in practice and at camp, so how’s that going to transfer to league? When they develop confidence, they’re going to do a good job.”