Mike Granger is out to prove his Terriers’ 20-14 win over Big Eight foe Athens to end last season was not an aversion — merely proof that Litchfield can play at a high level when they believe in themselves and finish out scoring drives.
With the addition of one of his former players as the offensive coordinator and the return of almost all of his skill players Granger thinks his second season in Litchfield can end in a playoff berth instead of the program’s eighth losing season since the turn of the century.
With senior Terry Lawler, one of the team’s best players, suspended for two games near the end of 2008, Granger said his team found a lot out about its true character and he expects that progress to translate in better things in 2009.
“I think the games we lost, especially against Colon and Waldron, the kids learned we can play with these guys without our quote-on-quote ‘stud player’,” Granger said. “We’re not going to have one of those sometimes and when we got to the Athens game there was no absolute way we should’ve been close to beating them, given they’re a Big Eight school, a lot bigger and more athletes. But the kids stepped up and played well and it taught my boys we can play with them.”
Although Lawler and Olen Imhof have both graduated after leading the team in tackles and harnessing large leadership roles on the offensive line, Granger believes a team that averaged just 13.6 points per game a year ago will be a lot more explosive.
It begins and ends with new offensive coordinator Robbie Hatten, Granger said.
“We still run our basic I-formation but he’s thrown in a gun formation, he’s thrown in an ace formation, he’s thrown in some different variations. Instead of teams being able to base everything around us running the I-formation we’ve got a shotgun formation now, so teams have to scheme a little bit differently,” Granger said during the first week of official practices.. “We ran it yesterday with pads on and it looked pretty good.”
Granger said the head coaches he grew up playing for always called all of the offensive plays themselves, but he’s not afraid to admit defense is his strength and he’s excited to see the fruits of Hattens’ labor, especially at the quarterback position.
Senior Jordon Fox will start at QB after a season that was filled with big-play potential, as well as a frustrating inconsistency at times.
Granger said last year Fox learned he has to play within the confines of the team and count on his teammates to make necessary plays.
“I think one of the things he’s learned is he’s got to have faith in more people around him, it’s not going to be all him. With Robbie’s help he’s going to learn how to run an offense the way it’s meant to be run,” Granger said. “Last year a lot of the stuff was just him making it up or whatnot, however now he’s going to be able read the defenses better and he’s also been throwing a lot better.”
“I think Scott can bring it to the table, to the point I think he can throw the ball a little bit better (than Fox), he’s a little more accurate,” Granger said. “The thing we’ve got to get with Scotty is he’s got to get more confident as time goes on.”
Starting at running back again this season will be Michael Henley, the determined little guy who leads by example and one of the Terriers’ captains along with Fox, Cole Rice and Alex Cornish.
“He’s stepped it up. He’s one of the smallest guys on the team, but you know how that is — sometimes the littlest guys have the biggest mouth,” Granger said referring to Henley. “Usually the little guys are just a bug in your ear, but he’s a true leader and he’ll play safety and call defensive plays for us too.”
Rice, who has plenty of girth and power, will continue to line up as the fullback.
The Cornish twins, Alex and Jeremy will be the Terriers main pass-catching threats on any given down.
Trying to provide the team with stability and plenty of protection will be an offensive line that returns just one starter from ’08. Senior center David Koontz will be relied upon to call out the schemes and give the younger guys guidance Granger said, while the rest of the line is fairly green, but plenty big.
The following players will jostle for playing time as the season nears and Granger said he isn’t afraid to rotate guys in and out as needed: Dylan Castle, Dylan Spieth, Tony Gonzales (who saw some time on the line last year) and Jaycob Sullins.
“The guys need to learn and know their responsibilities and just like any high school team, the offensive line is going to take you where you want to go,” Granger said, noting that his linemen range in size from 160-270 pounds.
On the opposite side of the ball the Terriers will be relying on Koontz as well, as he anchors the defensive line.
Spieth, Sullins and Castle also figure to be mainstays as the season progresses.
Observers would think the losses of Lawler and Imhof in the linebacking corps would paralyze the middle of the Terriers defense, but Granger is confident that won’t be the case.
“We’ll have to fill those big holes, but our linebacker core will be quicker I think,” he said. “Nick Spieth is there (after moving from the defensive line), and Cole Rice and Scotty Steele will play the outsides. I think we’ll be quicker, but they just have to be just as aggressive as Terry and Olen were last year.”
Jeremy Cornish, the team’s lone All-SCAA First Team defender last year, will work with the likes of Fox and junior Aaron Pelham to try and shut down the oppositions’ passing game in the secondary.
As confident as Granger is in the Terrier’s prospects for 2009, he also realizes that his team must show up early on this season if they want to make a run at the playoffs.
He said he knows his team will have to win five of its first six contests to give them a realistic chance at qualifying for the postseason.
They finish the season with games against Waldron, Colon and Athens, the kind of schools they struggled to find consistency against last year, aside from the upset of Athens.
“The biggest thing we have to be is more consistent. We were able to move the ball on all the teams we played against, we just had trouble getting the ball into the endzone,” Granger said. “When we played for the division title last year against Waldron we moved the ball inside the 30-yard line four times, we just could not score.”
When it comes to stability, Granger has his sights set much deeper than just the next nine games. He knows success breeds success and he wants the Litchfield football tradition to be appealing to younger kids.
“It’s hard to sell the program to the younger kids. The older kids are already established, but to the seventh- and eighth-graders coming up, that’s who you have to sell the program to,” he said. “We want to eventually get a JV program going because we haven’t had one in three years. Especially now, with the threat of 8-man football, the more kids you get out the less you have to worry about it.”
One thing he expects to be worrying about come November are game plans for meaningful contests.
“The kids really expect us to have a chance to win the league and go to the playoffs and I think those are realistic goals for us,” he said.