One month prior to the start of the 2013 football season, Billy O’Neil had one volunteer coach on his staff. The school board approved him filling out the rest of the group with volunteers.
The team went 1-9 and during a meeting with the board in November, a group of parents and citizens expressed their concerns about the program. Among them was the lack of paid assistant coaches. Superintendent Scott Dill acknowledged the situation and said he would address it. He did –– in a big way.
Unlike the previous year when the Houston High School football team had a group of volunteer assistants, the Tigers enter the 2014 campaign with three paid assistants with more than 50 years of experience. Vince McCrosky and Eric Sloan –– both former head coaches at Cabool –– have added offensive insight while Ken Cooperman has taken the reigns of the defense.
It’s a group O’Neil, who begins his third season as HHS head coach, has leaned on for advice.
“The biggest thing is the wealth of knowledge they bring,” O’Neil said. “If I have questions or see something I haven’t run into, I have assistants I can turn to and ask because between the three of them, they’ve seen it in the past.”
In the same breath, O’Neil is grateful for last year’s staff. In a pinch for assistance, he said Marty Merckling, Dwayne Gale, Dustin Bell and Cory Scheets donated their time and even finances to the program.
“The coaches last year were all good coaches and stepped in when there was no one else,” O’Neil said. “You can’t know how much that is appreciated until you are in that position.”
With a new supporting cast around him, O’Neil is focused on moving the struggling HHS program forward. The Tigers are 3-17 the past two seasons after last year ended with six straight losses and a 54-0 defeat in the opening round of districts. Houston is 11-70 since consecutive state semifinal appearances in 2005 and ’06.
Along with the new faces on the sidelines, the Tigers will have a new cast of players on the field with just three offensive and four defensive starters returning from last season. But O’Neil is confident in the new wave of players that step into roles on the varsity level after success on the junior varsity team.
“I’m not concerned about being competitive. They know how to win and compete,” O’Neil said. “How much emotion they play with will determine how far we go. These kids can take us where we haven’t been in a long time. But they’ll have to earn it.”
The changes begin in the offensive backfield, where HHS graduated its top six rushers and every player who scored an offensive touchdown last year.
Junior Nathan Poynter, who started the final three games of last season due to injury, takes over at quarterback. He was 5-for-27 passing for 51 yards last season –– but his three starts were against teams each ranked in the top five in Class 2.
The wingbacks in O’Neil’s double wing offense are seniors Scott Logan and Ty Wilkins. Starting fullback duties are a three-way battle between Stetson Welch, Tristan Cooper and Malachi Sawyer.
With input from his new coaches, O’Neil said there will be some new wrinkles to the HHS offense that gained more than 2,000 yards on the ground last year.
“I’m very comfortable with our backfield,” O’Neil said. “These kids are more than ready and willing to take over and put some new names in the newspaper.”
The offensive line is anchored by senior Kolby Walker, who moves from fullback to center, and three-year starter Keegan Spurlin at left guard. Matt Wheeler is the left tackle, Ross Wells will start at right tackle and Seth Goff and Andy Edwards are battling for the right guard spot.
Austin Schock, who was a part-time starter before a season-ending ankle injury last year, returns at the right tight end. Whitley Welch and Kyle Wilson are battling on the left side.
O’Neil is excited about the potential of an offensive line that averages 240 pounds with the smallest player at 230 pounds.
“If they come off the ball, I guarantee people are going to get moved a little bit,” he said.
The HHS defense will transition from last year’s 4-2-5 look to the 3-4. O’Neil said the Tigers could also line up in a 3-3 stack to stunt players from different directions.
Cooper is the starting nose guard and will be flanked by Wheeler at left tackle. The right tackle spot is a battle between Wilson, Edwards, Jon Bressie and Logan Bell.
The linebackers are led by Spurlin, who ranked fifth on the team with 34 tackles last season, and Walker, who was seventh and scored a defensive touchdown. Spurlin is the strong side linebacker and Walker is one of two inside linebackers. Schock will start on the weak side, and Stetson Welch and Sawyer are competing for the second inside slot.
Matt Knarr and Steven Logan, who had six interceptions for the Houston JV last year, are the starting cornerbacks. Scott Logan and Wilkins are the safeties.
The Tigers are down from last year’s roster of 49 players to 38 this season. But O’Neil isn’t concerned by the number.
“I’d rather have quality players than quantity,” he said. “Not saying that I don’t want more kids out –– I do, the more kids, the better. But if it came down to quantity and quality, I’d pick quality first.”
The opportunity to begin moving the program back in the winning direction begins Friday night when HHS hosts Hollister.
“I’ve told them it’s time to quit being the doormat,” O’Neil said. “It’s time to step up and bring their game. I think they are very capable.”