Chiefs look to build off last year's late-season success
By CRAIG DUNN Sports Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
LOGAN — Because they were able to re-focus and adapt to changes they were forced to make on the fly, the 2013 Logan Chieftains turned what could have been a disastrous start into their 26th Southeastern Ohio Athletic League football championship and the program’s first winning season in four years.
So it would stand to reason that, if the ‘13 Chiefs could change their identity on the fly in just a few weeks — an injury to sophomore starting quarterback Lane Little forced the Purple & White to transition into a ground offense with a QB who was basically another running back — imagine what the’14 Chiefs should be able to do with plenty of preparation time to transition back to what they wanted to be in the first place.
Now in his second season as head coach, Burke’s had more than a year to fully learn the strengths and weaknesses of each and every player… not that he (or his coaching staff) did a bad job of doing that last season.
“What we were able to accomplish last year was a positive experience for the kids who are on the team this year,” Burke recalled, “especially in facing adversity early in the season and for them to see (that) good things will happen if you’ll just stick with it.
“We’ve transitioned into this year understanding a little bit more of what it takes because we just came off a successful season,” he continued. “Our leaders and our seniors have a good understanding of what it takes, and they’ve done a pretty good job of leading our team in that direction. I’m pretty happy with where we are as a team right now.”
After Little was injured in the third quarter of Logan’s season-opening 57-7 shellacking at Lancaster, the Chiefs basically had to start almost from scratch and implement a new offense that moved running back Nick Kost into Little’s spot behind center.
Once the Purple & White got their bearings, it worked.
Logan overcame a 1-3 start to win five of its last six games — losing only to Zanesville, which came within a whisker of reaching the state Division II championship game — and finished 6-4.
Isaac Schmeltzer (1,040 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns) earned SEOAL MVP and third-team Division II All-Ohio honors. He and Kost (626 rushing yards, five rushing TD) are among 20 graduated seniors who, as a poster printed in the off-season read, helped to get “Order Restored.”
While the 2014 Chiefs hope to build off that momentum, they’ll have to do so by rebuilding with personnel who don’t enter the season with nearly as much varsity experience as the ’13 team did.
Still, although they only have 42 players (14 seniors, 15 juniors and 13 sophomores) on their varsity roster, the Chiefs return 15 lettermen and have more athletic ability than you might think, especially at the skill positions.
Burke stressed that those seniors will be vital to this team’s success.
“I pulled the seniors aside, because they’re the oldest, and I said ‘I haven’t known you guys very long, but what I understand of this group is that they have not had a lot of success as a group of seniors, meaning from their freshman year on up, and maybe dating back to seventh or eighth grade,” Burke said. “But I had to tell them that they’ve done a fabulous job as leaders of the program” thus far.
“I think we’re as good as we are right now because of the leadership that they’ve shown,” he continued. “That’s tough, too, when they haven’t had a lot of success to understand what it’s all about to be good. But they’ve taken the experience from last year and they’ve really transitioned. As a player who’s going to be a senior (the following year) you ought to be evaluating how the seniors the year before are as leaders, whether good or bad, and take from that what didn’t work well and what you really like.
“You lead with your style, but take the information and the lessons learned from the year before.”
Burke pointed out that it’s no different than what a coach would do.
“There are coaches I’ve worked for that I took things from and things I would never do that they did,” he said. “That’s what you do as a leader: you pick and choose what fits your style and at the same time what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.”
Even though they’re defending SEOAL champions, the Chiefs might fly under the radar. Because Jackson — whom they dethroned as league champions last fall — returns 11 starters on offense and 10 on defense, and has 18 seniors on its roster, the Ironmen are likely to be picked to win the league.
Still, it would be a big mistake for any team on Logan’s 2014 schedule to overlook the Chiefs.
When he was named head coach in the winter of 2013, Burke said he would adapt his teams to best take advantage of the abilities of the personnel that were available. That’s just what he did last fall, and it’s just what he plans to do this season.
While the Chiefs will be a diverse team that could flood the field with receivers on one play and then put three running backs behind a pair of tight ends on the next, Burke notes this new Logan team — which is blessed with an abundance of talented receivers — is far-better geared toward the putting the ball in the air.
They don’t have a lot of running backs, but the ones they do have are talented, led by junior (and two-year letterman) Bryce McBride (505 yards, three TD in 2013).
With Little — now a junior — healthy and ready to once again take the offensive snaps, Burke and the Chiefs plan to throw the ball much more.
You can bet the Chiefs will throw more than the 94 passes they attempted (Kost threw 78 and Little a dozen) last fall… heck, Little threw 24 times in less than three quarters during last Friday’s OHSAA Jamboree scrimmage at Sheridan.
“It’s always nice to have a quarterback capable of throwing the football. That just adds another dynamic to your offense,” said Burke. Little is “also very cerebral. Coach (Brian) Breining and he have worked together for a couple years and Lane’s pretty good at diagnosing a defense and seeing what a defense is running coverage-wise.
“He knows what his first read (and his) second read are, and when you do that it allows you to get the ball out quicker,” he added. “So when you diagnose a coverage, you see where you’re going to go with the ball unless something else happens. It appears you have a quick release, but you’ve recognized the coverage and know what route is going to come open.
“He’s done a great job. He’s a great leader by example; he goes about his business, works hard and throws a good football and can execute the throws. He’s going to have to because we have several receivers who are going to get the football and get it in different situations. I feel pretty good about him at quarterback. We have to do a good job protecting him.”
The Chiefs return their top two receivers — junior Isaiah Smith (14 receptions for 199 yards and three touchdowns) and senior Nathan Cocks (12 catches, 131 yards, one TD) — as well as big 6-foot-9 senior tight end Kevin Fisher, who caught four passes… three of them for touchdowns.
Little will have plenty of weapons.
“There will be lots of times when we have four receivers in the game,” Burke said. “We have (senior) Chance Cox back this year; Nathan Cocks is a great fundamental route-runner; (senior) Casey Phillips is going to come in and provide us with some big plays; (senior) Joe Foltz will come in and do some big things, and Isaiah Smith is back and has a nice connection with Lane.
“But I’m not afraid of having a (junior) Brendan Karns come in the game and playing receiver,” he added. “He can have quality repetitions on offense. And Jenson Wallace has had a nice camp as a sophomore and is a bit of a pleasant surprise. He’s come in and made some nice plays.
“Sometimes people view a spread offense as basketball on grass. I think it’s a great problem to have to have athletes who do multiple things and are good out in space. That’s a lot of what our team’s going to be: finding the best matchup to get an Isaiah Smith, or a Chance Cox, or a Casey Phillips in the right position so they can accentuate their strengths and also exploit a defense’s weakness.”
Senior Dean Jordan joins McBride in the backfield.
“We’re going to be solid at running back,” Burke said. “Dean Jordan and Bryce McBride are going to play a lot of A-back, but at the same time they’ll also play our B-back, which is like a fullback-type of position. They’re also both linebackers for us, so we can’t have a guy who’s always carrying the football also be a linebacker.
“Last year was nice when our A-back (Schmeltzer) only played offense,” he added. “If I could hand-pick, I’d pick my quarterback and my A-back and they would only play offense (and then) the defense could have the next-best guys. But we don’t have that (luxury) this year, so we’ll have to do a good job managing our substitutions and repetitions so those guys play good defense and at the same time give us a legitimate threat at running back.
“Colton Stilwell can come in and play some fullback. We’re asking him to do some different things here and there to add some diversity to our offense as kind of a B-back/H-back, referring to the H-back (who isn’t) necessarily a fullback or tight end but who has a diverse skill-set that we can take advantage of.”
The Chiefs have had to re-tool their defense. Their primary concern is that a lot of the players who will comprise the offensive line will also be carrying the D-line load as well.
“We feel better about where we are defensively,” Burke said. “It’s year number two for me, and the coaches have worked with me for a year now, so it’s a little less of ‘what’s coach Burke looking for?’ as opposed to having worked together an off-season designing something that fits our kids defensively.
“If you come in and tell a group ‘this is what I want you to do,’ I don’t know if it can be executed as well as ‘let’s sit down and create something together. Now it’s yours, so you understand the nuances of your scheme and what it is you’re trying to accomplish as opposed to just executing somebody’s else’s,” he added. “The terminology’s the same — we tweak it a little bit — positions are the same, so it’s a year under their belt of the scheme and the system, which helps them play a lot faster and be more comfortable.”
Size — as in heights, weights and sheer numbers — will likely come into play right off the bat next Friday night when the Chiefs host Lancaster in the final game of that season-opening series.
“Week one’s always going to be tough when you’re facing a (Lancaster) team and program that has more kids,” Burke said. “It’s sort of a war of attrition… you can only hold off for so long until you get overwhelmed with numbers.
“That’s always tough,” he added, “but I do feel good about the dynamic of our team this year and what we’re able to do against other teams.”
With a schedule that only has one different foe (Meigs replaces Newark) from last season, Burke’s in a better position to get a handle on his opponents this season.
“When I assess them from a year ago, I feel pretty good about our schedule,” Burke said. “I don’t know much about Meigs (on the schedule for the first time in more than 30 years), but I like how we match up against teams on our schedule.”
The schedule is tough. Although only Zanesville and Loudonville made the playoffs last season, as many as six or seven Chieftain foes could have winning records this fall.
“I don’t think that’s a surprise,” Burke said. “Those teams are tough, and there’s no getting around that, but I feel good about the things we can do and the type of defense that we’re playing right now.”
Not many teams in the state have as diverse of a schedule as the Chiefs, who play at least one team from six of the OHSAA’s seven playoff divisions: Lancaster (Division I), Teays Valley and Zanesville (D2), Jackson (D3), Gallipolis, Meigs and Warren (D4), Portsmouth (D5) and Nelsonville-York and Loudonville (D6).
“I feel good about how we match up week-to-week,” Burke said. “It comes down to coaches figuring out schemes and ways to get our players in the best possible positions so we can maximize their potential. We don’t (want to) drop a game because coaches weren’t prepared.”
The first five games — home games with Lancaster and Nelsonville-York, sandwiched around road games at Teays Valley, Meigs and Loudonville — will be a good test for the Chiefs before they begin defense of their SEOAL title starting week six at Portsmouth. The Trojans may very well have the best sheer athletes the Purple & White will face this season.
“When you’ve beaten everybody in the league the year before, you figure you’re going to get everybody’s best game the following year,” Burke said. “It’s easy to climb to the top of the mountain and win the trophy, but it’s harder to keep everybody at bay who wants the trophy that’s in your hands. We have a huge challenge ahead of us to do that.”
Logan plays six of its 10 games away from Logan Chieftain Stadium, with those road trips taking them on nearly 800 round-trip miles.
“We’ll be road warriors — us against the world, whatever you want to say,” Burke said. “We have to be on the road six times, and our last scrimmage (last Friday at Sheridan was) on the road, too, so that’s like seven road games. But I like where our team is and I think we’ll do a nice job handling everything.”
Let the games begin.
The Logan Daily News continues its preview of Logan Chieftain football on Wednesday with a look at the players who will make up the offense, defense and special teams.