Experience, depth are huge positives for Falcons heading into 2014 season

Pictured above is the 2014 Fayette High School team. They are: (front row, l to r) Ethan Harper, Sam Zimmel, Andrew Simmons, Marquis Williams; (second row, l to r) Ashton Boatman, Zech Burks, Ryan Asbury, Colin Thies, Lane Ball, Sam Moore, Chance Roberts; (third row, l to r) Babrak Roberts, Clayton Finley, Dakota Willoughby, Ahmad McCutcheon, Tommy Phillips, Robby Robinson, Mason Stornello, Aaron Wilder, Nicholas Lembke; (fourth row, l to r) Brennen Hudson, Kaden Hoover, Chavez Kent, Blake Dawso

By Greg Jackson
Sports Editor

During his first two seasons as head coach, Tom Oakley spent many a game putting young players into varsity games when they weren’t quite ready for that level.

He couldn’t help it. He had to do it. After all, because of low numbers and numerous injuries, Oakley was left with no choice.

The thing is, now all of that is going to pay off in 2014. Fayette returns eight starters on offense and seven more on defense, bringing back players with multiple years of varsity experience. Many have started anywhere between 15 and 30 games in their high school careers.

“Experience is key,” Oakley said. “We have a bunch of kids coming back with experience. The expectations are really ramped up this year for those players.”

Oakley said the first week of practice was the best opening week he’s seen in Fayette in a number of years. He enters his third season as head coach, going 2-8 in each of his first two seasons. It will be Oakley’s 18th year on staff.

Fayette lost six seniors from last year, including three All-Conference and All-District players in Jason Esau, Chance Goff and Collin O’Connell. Those three players were driving forces on both sides of the ball, but Oakley feels this year’s team has several players just itching to fill those big shoes.

For the fourth straight season, Fayette will have a new starting quarterback behind center for the season opener, but this year’s quarterback comes into the season with plenty of experience.

Ethan Harper already has six starts under his belt — one as a sophomore and the final five games of the 2013 season — and was the easy choice for Oakley to take snaps this season. For the first half 2013, Fayette was a running team, but Harper quickly emerged as a passing quarterback.

In his final start of the season at Putnam County, Harper completed eight passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns, easily the best game of his high-school career to date. Oakley said that was a pretty high note on which to end the season, but Harper has shown even more improvement since November.

“The Ethan Harper we have now is unbelievably more advanced than the Ethan Harper we had last year,” Oakley said. “He’s a young senior and it has taken him some time to physically mature. He’s a big kid now, whereas he was always undersized before. His arm strength is out of this world and his confidence level is high.”

Oakley said that although the Falcons want to make the running game a No. 1 priority this season, fans will see more of a passing presence compared to the past two seasons. In addition to Harper’s arm, another reason for that adjustment is Fayette lost its top-two running backs from a year ago. No back returning this season carried the ball for more than 50 yards…in the entire 2013 season.

“We cannot be successful with the minimal passing numbers we’ve had over the past couple of years,” Oakley said. “We’ve made a concerted effort to increase our passing numbers. But we’re still going to establish a running game first.”

Leading the charge in the running game this season will be junior Sam Moore. He was one of a few players to get some varsity-level carries toward the end of games late last year. Oakley said Moore will be more of a zone offense running back and showed that he can be successful using that offensive set at the Missouri Valley College jamboree in June.

“He’s got good vision,” Oakley said. “You’ve got to slow-play that zone. You have to find that crease, put your foot in it and hit it. He’s done a nice job and we’re waiting for things to open up and let him take it.”

Oakley said Fayette will mostly use a single-back formation this year. Another junior, Zech Burks, will also take some plays in that backfield at running back. Burks hasn’t played since his freshman season, but his athleticism makes him a threat to defenses any time he touches the ball.

“He is a hard downhill runner,” Oakley said of Burks. “We need to slow him down a little bit on those zones because he likes to get out ahead. He’s such a physically gifted athlete.”

Oakley’s third option at running back is a player he considers to be his “wild card” on offense. Sophomore Ahmad McCutcheon has already shown he is one of the fastest ball carriers in the state, based on his success at state track in May. Oakley said McCutcheon will mostly be used as a slot wide receiver rather than in the backfield, but the main goal is to get the ball to the speedy sophomore in open space.

“He’s going to make things happen and we’re going to make it uncomfortable for other teams’ defensive backs, who will have to tackle him in open space,” Oakley said. “When it’s all said and done, he’s going to get a lot of carries in his high school career. We’ll work him into that tailback position.”

Even though the Falcons don’t have a prototypical running quarterback this year as they had last season with O’Connell, Oakley said he will continue to work the option plays. After all, Harper is the team’s top returning rusher from last season, gaining a net total of 49 yards on the ground and one touchdown.

Fayette loses its top receiver from a year ago with the graduation of Goff, but a pair of starting receivers are back this season. Senior Andrew Simmons was one of three Fayette players to haul in 100 or more receiving yards in 2013. The 6-foot-3 wideout had 144 receiving yards and a touchdown as a junior. Oakley said he always seems to find a way to make the tough catches.

Also returning at wide receiver is junior Lane Ball, who caught only four passes last season but two went for touchdowns.

“It seems like he should have had more catches than that, because the other ones were so memorable,” Oakley said. “He’s really worked hard on his stock blocking. We struggled last year with blocking on the edge and he’s done a good job shoring that up. That’s going to translate into more catches for him.”

However, Oakley said that right now, junior Chance Roberts is making a push to be the team’s No. 1 wide receiver. Roberts will be listed as the backup quarterback behind Harper, but he’s likely to crack the starting 11 on offense as a wideout. The All-State pole vaulter mostly saw varsity action on defense last season.

“Chance Roberts catches anything,” Oakley said. “He’s like a Venus flytrap, that kid. He doesn’t miss. He catches anything in his area and he runs awesome routes.”

Junior Ashton Boatman will be another player who is expected to see time at the varsity level as well at the wide receiver position.

Things are looking up on the offensive line this season. For the past few years, depth has been an issue on the line, and when one or two players went down with injury, Oakley had to scuffle around, making adjustments and moving players from their intended position to the line.

That shouldn’t be the case in 2014. Four of the five expected starting linemen weigh at least 200 pounds, and the fifth player has been a three-year starter. Oakley said that should be Fayette’s biggest area of improvement from last year.

“I’m excited about the kids that we have starting,” Oakley said. “With the kids behind them, though, we’re then getting into the freshmen.”

Fayette returns senior Sam Zimmel at center and junior Ryan Asbury at tackle. The three newcomers to the line are welcomed additions.

Senior Max Hilderbrand returns to the Falcons after sitting out last season with a neck injury and will be one of the starting guards. He’ll be joined by his younger brother, freshman Hank Hilderbrand, at the other guard position. Filling out the second tackle position is senior Marquis Williams, who returns to the Falcons after sitting out last season.

“Sam played quite a bit last year and is a three-year starter,” Oakley said. “He does a good job snapping the ball and that’s always the key. Max, being out for a year, he’s stepped in and played really well. He’s a senior and he’s motivated to do well. On the other side of him is little brother Hank. Hank is just a big old hoss. He’s going to be a heck of a player. There’s going to be a learning curve with him, but he’s willing to ask questions and learn.

“Ryan Asbury got plenty of playing time last year and a number of starts. He’s doing a really good job out there at tackle. Marquis, on the other side, is probably our most-gifted offensive lineman. He’s got size and good feet. If we had a bigger number of offensive linemen, Marquis would probably be playing tight end.”

Ready to come off the bench when Oakley gives them the thumbs up are three newcomers: sophomores Dakota Willoughby, Aaron Wilder and freshman Jonathan Jobe. The three may not have any varsity experience, but they make up for it in size. Oakley said the preseason has been about improving their footwork and readying them to come off the bench.

“It’s been a while since we’ve had a number of big kids in our system,” Oakley said. “We’ve had to throw 160-pound sophomores out there to the wolves (in the past) because we didn’t have any other options. Well, now we have other options, and they’re nice-sized kids.”

Switching over to defense, the Falcons will have more size on the front line as well. Oakley said Williams and Hank Hilderbrand are expected to be two key players in the middle on defensive line, and Max Hilderbrand will see some time there as well.

“Marquis could play a number of positions, even linebacker,” Oakley said. “But he’s going to be a load up front as a defensive tackle. He’s going to be quicker than most of the defensive linemen. Hank is going to be hard to move and he’s going to be stronger than most freshmen.”

On the ends, junior Colin Thies returns after making All-Conference honorable mention as an end last season, recording 39 tackles and a pair of sacks. Zimmel will take the other spot on the end and Asbury will find his way into the defensive line as well.

“Thies was undersized as a sophomore last season, but there won’t be a defensive end out there quicker than him, that I guarantee,” Oakley said. “He’s got a good first move up front. I believe that he’s going to be a kid that has a breakout year, putting pressure on the quarterback. Zimmel and Asbury are working on the other end, and Burks may work over there too. We’re a little unsettled on our defensive line right now, but that’s what we’re using the jamboree for.”

The biggest blow for Fayette’s defense this season comes at the linebacker position. The Falcons lose two All-Conference linebackers and will not return three of the four starting linebacker from a year ago. That also equates to losing three of the team’s top-four leading tacklers from last season, including O’Connell’s average of 14 tackles per game.

The linebacker position has been Fayette’s strongest defensive asset the past few seasons and now the Falcons are going to be forced to reload. Simmons returns as the only starter at linebacker, recording 72 tackles in 2013, which was third-most on the team.

“We can’t replace Collin and Jason, and we don’t expect these kids to be Collin and Jason,” Oakley said. “But these kids are capable of stepping in there and doing their jobs.”

Simmons is a player who likes to make contact and loves to fly up, Oakley said. He is set to take that role of being Fayette’s leading tackler, potentially racking up as many as 100 total tackles this season. The key this season, Oakley said, is to get Simmons to make the “sure” tackles rather than going for the knockout tackle.

Moore made a few starts at linebacker due to injuries and will be a full-time starter this year. Oakley said he has a knack for the ball and has speed from sideline to sideline.

Oakley anticipates Fayette playing to guard the run against a majority of its opponents this season, so the Falcons will usually line up in a 4-4 defensive front. Other players looking to stack the box at the other linebacker positions are Roberts and sophomore Tommy Phillips. Oakley said Burks could even move back from the defensive line to linebacker.

Should the Falcons face a pass-frenzy team — such as Paris — Oakley said they’ll switch to a 4-3 defense. Fayette’s defensive secondary has made significant progress from start to finish last year and the Falcons bring back a few key players. Harper, who started at safety, will also quarterback the defense again this season. He had 48 total tackles a year ago.

On the corners, Ball has been a two-year starter at defensive back and was responsible for numerous pass deflections last year. Goff led the Falcons with three interceptions last season and Ball will look to pick up the slack in that department. With Roberts listed as an outside linebacker, Oakley said it adds even more speed to the secondary. McCutcheon will also get some playing time at cornerback this season, hoping to use his speed to track down the opponent’s fastest player.

“Ball has definitely improved on his technique,” Oakley said. “His tackling skills are better and I think he’s going to have a really nice season for us. Ahmad got a decent amount of time out there last year as a corner. Just like on offense, we’re going to move some kids around and make sure we’ve got the right fit for him.”

Oakley said if McCutcheon shifts to an outside linebacker, it would open up an opportunity for sophomore Robby Robinson at cornerback, as well as Boatman and freshman Kaden Hoover.

“We’re still a little unsettled on who we’re going to throw out there, but the key is we have kids who are fighting for it,” Oakley said. “Nobody is feeling comfortable. We’re going to put the best kids out there that we can.”

Competition has been an added bonus this season with all the experience that is returning for the Falcons. Oakley said only a few starting positions on either side of the ball have been locked in, and a lot could happen at the other positions between now and Friday’s season opener at home against Hallsville. The younger kids are ready to challenge the older, more experienced players for time on the field, Oakley said.

“We’ve got kids who want to play,” Oakley said. “They’re coming to practice and they’re wanting to take their job. This year, the upperclassmen have taken that to heart and they’ve worked. It’s made us a better ball team.”

In the special teams, Oakley has plenty of options. Last year, O’Connell was the primary kicker, but a leg injury forced Harper and McCutcheon to fill his roles. This year, Oakley said Williams is slated to be the Falcons’ No. 1 kicker, with McCutcheon as a second option.

For those who don’t remember, Williams was capable of kicking the ball into the endzone on kickoffs for a touchback, and that was four years ago at the middle school level.

“He can really let it go,” Oakley said. “We were practicing extra points and he was consistent on making those. He was kicking field goals from 25, 30, even 40 yards out. Right now, he’s definitely our kickoff and extra point guy.”

The options are even greater as the team’s punter. Williams has the leg for it, but Oakley said Moore is looking like a No. 1 option at that position, allowing Williams to be one of the blockers on the line. Harper also spent much of last season as the team’s punter and could boot away some balls for the Falcons this year.

“We’ve got options,” Oakley said. “Sam Moore has done a pretty good job and he’s probably the more consistent punter.”

On the receiving side of special teams, Oakley said he continues to hope and pray that teams are willing to kick away to the Falcons this season. Last year, Fayette returned four kickoffs for touchdowns and had one of the strongest crew of returners in Class 1.

Should teams get gutsy and kick it deep to Fayette, Oakley said McCutcheon will be a top option to continue the Falcons’ strong tradition in the return game. He was one of four different players with a kickoff return for a touchdown last year and his 11.4-second speed in the 100-meters last season makes him a threat anytime he touches the ball.

“We’re going to see some magical things happen if Ahmad gets his hands on the ball,” Oakley said. “He’s done a much better job with catching the ball and that’s an area where he struggled last year. He’s focusing more on getting the ball in his hands first.”

Other returners will include Ball, Moore and Roberts. Oakley said he also has plenty of speed in the middle level with guys like Thies. So, if teams opt to squib kick the ball only 20 or 25 yards, Fayette has players in the middle level primed to return kickoffs for touchdowns too.

McCutcheon will also start the season as Fayette’s main punt returner.

The Lewis & Clark Conference was regarded as the strongest Class 1 conference last year, with three teams — Marceline, Salisbury and Westran — consistently finding themselves in the top 10 state rankings week after week. Last season, Marceline reached the state title game, losing to Valle Catholic at the EdwardJones Dome in St. Louis. Westran reached the state quarterfinals, falling to Marceline, and Salisbury lost to Marceline in the district semifinals.

Those same three teams are anticipated to be fighting for the conference championship, Oakley said. Each team will have a significant returner ready to make that happen. Westran has Zane Jacoby, Salisbury has Brady Francis and Marceline has Blake Linebaugh. Then again, teams can’t sleep on Paris, who also returns one of the top players in the conference in Slater Stone.

Fans might need to find a term stronger than a “dogfight” to describe the Lewis & Clark Conference race in 2014.

“Those three teams are definitely going to be at the top,” Oakley said. “I would say Paris and ourselves will be on that second tier. We played Paris as tight as we could possibly play them last year. That was a tough loss for us. We’re really motivated to go out and beat that team this year. You’re not going to find a tougher Class 1 conference in the state.”

So you think that sounds tough? Well, those same three teams are also pitted against each other for a district crown this year. A few changes to Class 1 District 6 allows Fayette to play teams closer to home this year, rather than making long bus rides to Princeton and Putnam County. In addition to Marceline, Salisbury and Westran, Fayette will be joined by Harrisburg, Slater, Santa Fe and Sweet Springs in the district for the next two seasons.

Schedules were moved up a week this fall to accommodate a more favorable playoff schedule. In the past, most classes only had four days off between state playoff games. Because the start of the season was moved up one week this year, playoff teams will now have a full week off between postseason games, just like they experienced in the regular season.

Football teams have experienced some rather mild weather for the first few weeks of practice, but Oakley said the weather is about to heat up.

“We’ll need to get used to the heat and get acclimated to playing in it,” Oakley said. “Moving everything up hasn’t affected us, though.”

Heading into the 2014 season, Fayette will have an even smaller senior class compared to a year ago, with just five kids. The junior class isn’t much bigger, with seven players.

This fall will allow the younger sophomores and freshmen to gather plenty of experience at both the varsity and junior varsity levels. However, across the board, Oakley said he’s noticed a change among the attitude of his team, and it’s a change he likes.

“We don’t have any kids on this year’s team that will accept losing,” Oakley said. “I couldn’t say that in the past. We’re not going to go out and take the field and let that be good enough. These kids want to succeed.

“We saw that during the summer. We had a number of kids come into the weight room this summer. When I look down our roster, a majority of the kids were committed to the weight room. It’s a larger percentage than we’ve seen in the past. They’re focused on doing things the right way.”

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