Young Tigers set to go under Friday night lights

The practices and dress rehearsals are over. It’s go time for the 2009 football season.

Many of the Houston Tigers’ key players will get their first taste of varsity football Friday night when rival Cabool comes to Tiger Stadium for the season opener.

The spotlight will shine brightly on multiple players in their first starting roles, especially sophomore quarterback Kyle Jones.

“The basic thing I’m looking forward to is seeing how they’ll handle things under the lights on Friday night,” said third-year Tigers coach Chris Edwards. “We know what we’ll get from the older kids. For the first-year players, it will be interesting to see. I have confidence in the kids, and I think they’ll do fine.”

The Tigers, who went 6-5 and earned a playoff berth last season, need contributions from several new faces to maintain their success.

Senior Jesse Setters, who is playing varsity football for the first time, leads an inexperienced receiving corps that includes Ridge Miller and Joe Wallace. Returning tailback Justin Schmidt is the only player on the roster with a reception in 2008.

Then there’s Jones. He takes over for departed starter David Weybright, who accounted for 34 total touchdowns at quarterback in the Tigers’ no-huddle, spread offense.

Jones, who qualified for track sectionals in the high, long and triple jump last year as a freshman, has been a strong runner and accurate with short passes. He’s still developing throwing the ball downfield.

“He’s shown a lot of promise and maturity thus far,” Edwards said. “He’s a really laid back kid. Then sometimes he gets excited on the field. We’ve talked about him still being laid back at quarterback. He’s got to slow the game down and see things.”

Edwards said the responsibility for Jones’ success also lies with the wide receivers. He said the offense had mixed results at last week’s jamboree in Sullivan.

“We ran the ball well. We were able to get 4- and 5-yard chunks,” Edwards said. “We’ve got to catch the ball. We had too many drops and a couple fumbles, too. We’ve got to get over those things.”

Houston hosts a team with just as many fresh faces. Cabool, which went 1-9 last season, has just 10 upperclassmen on its roster and is under the direction of first-time head coach Eric Sloan.

The Bulldogs, who are making the transition from a Wing T to spread offense under Sloan, also will showcase an untested quarterback. Starter Nate Stoutenborough tore his ACL during the summer, leaving speedster Donovan Baker and freshman Drew Pearson as the candidates to fill the role.

Sloan expects both to play quarterback against Houston.

“We’re going to split time at the beginning of the season,” Sloan said. “I think Drew is eventually going to be the man. But he’s a freshman, so we want to ease him into things. I know what other teams will want to do with him. He’s a pup. I’ll try to keep him under my wing as much as possible.”

When he isn’t playing quarterback, Baker will line up at receiver and running back. Sloan said her prefers to keep Baker on the perimeter – if the team is capable of getting him the ball.

Edwards isn’t certain what to expect offensively from Cabool. He said the varsity only ran 12-13 plays at its jamboree and used both Baker and Pearson at quarterback.

No matter what the Tigers see, Edwards know it’s important to keep an eye on No. 4.

“The kids have to understand where he’s at on the field because he can be a game breaker,” Edwards said of Baker. “We’ll have to keep him in check.”

The season opener carries special significance for Sloan. Not only is it his first game as head coach, he also faces a program he was part of four years earlier. Sloan was an assistant when this year’s senior class were freshmen at Houston.

Sloan said he’s been both anxious and nervous to get things started.

“There’s not much sleeping going on,” Sloan said. “I’m ready for about 7:01 to get here Friday night. At least it’s on the way and there’s no turning back.”

Houston won last year’s matchup 12-0 to snap a 21-game losing skid. The victory ignited a 3-0 start and eventually winning season.

Both coaches know it’s an important matchup for their young teams. Not to mention the county braggin’ rights on the line.

“Two years ago, they came up here and smacked us pretty good. Last year, we won a game and ended the bad streak we were on,” Edwards said. “It’s kind of a rubber match this year.”

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