Chris Edwards has been in this position before. Twice.
Four years ago, Edwards inherited a winless team at Versailles. At his previous stop in Winfield, Edwards was given a team that had six total wins in program history.
Now comes Houston, where a team that advanced to the state semifinals in consecutive years dragged itself through a forgettable 0-10 season last year. An embarrassing season was turned on its head when coach Josh Gettler resigned following allegations of improper conduct with a student.
Edwards knows what is next. He’s here to pick up the pieces and restore Houston’s winning tradition of just two years earlier.
“The kids must have a belief that we’re headed in the right direction,” Edwards said. “We need to take steps in the right direction, and we need to get the program headed the right way.”
After 2006, there’s nowhere to go but up.
It was a disappointing season all the way around for the Tigers last year. They were badly beaten (by an average score of 38-7) and dominated (6.5 yards per play to 3.2) in every conceivable way. They were shutout four times and failed to reach double digits seven times.
Edwards saw the lingering effects of last season at the beginning of the summer.
“We struggled with the first camp, and it was disheartening,” he said.
But things have changed. Behind constant prodding and encouragement from Edwards and his staff, the mood has changed inside the Big Red Building. The players believe in their new coach and the system. Maybe most importantly, they’re beginning to believe in themselves.
“I think there’s a different mind set,” junior Ty Scheets said. “There’s an overall sense of appreciation because we know where the lowest point is at and now we’re trying to get to the highest point we can.”
Edwards may be the coach to take Houston there.
At Winfield, Edwards more than doubled the program’s win total with nine victories in two years. He moved on to Versailles, where he directed the team to three wins its first season and four each of the next two seasons.
Edwards believes he can do the same at Houston, especially with this group of players.
“They are some of the best kids I’ve ever coached as far as the people that they are,” Edwards said. “They’re fun to be around every day. That makes the job worth it. But they also want to win and work hard.”
One immediate difference will be the Tigers’ offense, which changed week to week under Gettler. Edwards has implemented a traditional I-formation with two running backs, two wide receivers and a tight end. But from that, Houston will run multiple receivers and shotgun formations.
The Tigers showcased the new look at their annual scrimmage. The first-team offense, under the direction of returning starting quarterback David Weybright and tailback Kirk Pierce, gained yards in big chunks and scored multiple times.
“We’re definitely going to make the defense think,” Pierce said of the new offense. “We’ve got people going all over the place. We’ve got plays that we’re going to come at you and hit you, and then we’ve got plays that are going to deceive you.”
After missing the first game of last season, Weybright steadily developed into a weapon at quarterback. He threw for 608 of his 758 yards in the final three games, highlighted by a 297-yard performance in the season finale against Cabool.
His top target, Ty Scheets, returns along with tight end Travis Barker. Scheets had 27 catches for 369 yards and three scores after beginning the season at fullback. Newcomer Martin Crawford will start opposite Scheets at wideout.
Pierce gets the nod at tailback after impressing Edwards with his quickness in 20-yard sprints and ability to finish off carries. At 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, Pierce isn’t a prototypical tailback.
“It’s a new experience for me because my last two stops, my tailbacks have been more of the 5-foot-5, 5-6, quicker kids getting to the edge,” Edwards said. “It’s kind of nice to have a kid that can lower the boom on somebody.”
Pierce, who had team highs of 367 yards on 111 carries and three touchdowns last year, knows he won’t shake most defenders. But he can bowl over many of them for extra yards.
The Houston running game can use any dose of success. The Tigers averaged just 2.5 yards per carry last season.
“I like hitting people,” Pierce said. “Coach every now and then tries to get me to use some moves. I guess I have a little bit of speed, but I’m still going to go through there, lower my head and hit some people.”
Sophomore Brad Pounds, who began last season at tailback, will start at tailback. Justin Schmidt and Josh Thomas will also get carries out of the backfield.
Junior Aaron Scheets returns to the offensive line at center. He’s flanked by guards Josh Dixon and Ryan Thurman and tackles Dustin Bell and Justin Jenkins.
The Houston defense is anchored by all-conference linebackers Pierce and Scheets. They’ll be paired with either Kyle Williams or Thomas at strong side linebacker.
Pierce, who had 105 tackles and three sacks, and the linebacking corps should have plenty of opportunities to make plays in Edwards’ attacking 4-3 look.
“Our defense is quite a bit of fun for the kids because we’re an attacking style defense,” Edwards said. “We’re going to bring some pressure. We don’t want to sit back and let the offense dictate to us what we can do. We want to dictate to the offense what they can do.”
Dixon and Jenkins, who combined weigh 515 pounds, will plug the middle of the defensive line. Scheets, who played on the interior last year, and Skyler Ward are the defensive ends.
The secondary is led by strong safety Barker and free safety Pounds. The corners are Crawford and Ridge Miller.
Crawford, who didn’t play last season, is projected to start on both sides of the ball for the Tigers.
“He worked his tail off in the weight room and has really done a good job,” Edwards said. “He’s not the fastest kid in the world, but he plays with good technique and a lot of heart.”
Edwards said he has a few personal goals with his team in his first year at Houston, but none involve win totals.
“I never set expectations as far as win five games or seven games.,” he said. “What happens when you reach the goal? Do you stop trying at that point? My main goal is for the kids to compete and play to win every week. Just win the next game.”
Pierce, one of five seniors, hopes that the Tigers can at least be competitive in all 10 games.
“We want to put up a good fight against everybody we play,” he said. “I don’t want people thinking, ‘Oh, that’s the same ole Houston from last year.’ I look forward to people saying this isn’t a pushover team.”