East football battling to replace 19 seniors

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2009 Fall Sports Preview

By Mike Farner

MOUNT WASHINGTON - A year after a dream season, the Bullitt East Chargers are hoping to follow the same script to another successful football campaign.

Coming off a banner season that ended in a 15-13 loss to Bell County in the Class 4-A State Championship game, the red and gold will be looking for more of the same this fall.

In 2008, Bullitt East did what every coach dreams about - the red and gold played better football each week over the last two-thirds of the season. After a 2-4 start, the Chargers lost just twice over the final nine weeks of the season with one of those setbacks in double overtime and the other being the state final where a failed two-point conversion attempt with 10 seconds to play ended the season.

With 19 seniors a year ago, Bullitt East’s slow start was a little unexpected. This year, there won’t be the gnashing of teeth if there are a couple of bumps in the road. The Chargers return just three starters on offense and two on defense.

Yes, the red and gold has some major rebuilding to do at this point. Still, second-year head coach Doug Preston is confident that there are enough pieces available to make this another successful season.

After the success from last year, nobody will be overlooking the Chargers in 2009.

“I don’t know if Bullitt East can ever sneak up on anyone,” Preston said with a smile last week. “There is a lot of tradition here from coach (Mike) Egan and coach (Mike) Settles. But, obviously, we can’t do that this season.”

On the plus side, Preston is settled in now. He knows what to expect from the players and the players know what to expect from the coach.

“That senior class had been here and playing so much,” Preston pointed out. “We have kids back now who have been off a few years or new kids so we’re still learning a lot about them.”

This year, Bullitt East has 80 players in the program with roughly 30 of those being freshmen.

Of course, the big move came midway through last season when Preston scrapped the program’s long history with the split-back veer offense and inserted the wishbone. Now, the varsity players are more familiar with that. Still, because it was done so late in the season a year ago, neither the junior-varsity or freshman teams were using it even at the end. The good news was that with five weeks of play-offs, the younger kids got a taste of the wishbone.

“I thought they were pretty comfortable last year with it,” Preston said of the new offense. “Some of them did get to see it last year and some worked with it. Again, we just have so many inexperienced players. That’s the big issue.”

With the time provided by spring practice and all of this summer, Preston has been able to expand the wishbone playbook.

“We’ve already put things in that we didn’t have time for last year,” the coach said. “There are things we’re putting in new for the wishbone.”

One thing that has changed within the program this year is that long-time assistant coaches Jeff Bowles and Jerry Troutman have stepped down. Long-time assistant coach Darrell Vincent is back along with David Williams who Preston brought with him to run the defense last year. Justin Hall, a former Bullitt East player, is also back.

The new paid assistant coach is Cameron Edwards who is a recent Georgetown College graduate. At this point, there is still one unfilled paid position on the staff. In addition, Preston has a long list of volunteer assistants. To help at all levels.

Offensive Changes

While the Chargers have to replace every other ‘skilled’ play on offense, the good news is the return of senior quarterback Matt Bowles. This will be his third year of running the Charger attack.

While Bowles is both a suitable runner and a strong thrower, his most important trait may well be his leadership.

“Matt does a good job in all phases,” Preston said of the 5-11, 176-pound senior. “He has gotten stronger and his leadership is the best I’ve ever had.

“Having our quarterback back is a big plus,” the coach added. “Matt is one of the better quarterback in the region and the most experienced.”

A year ago, Bowles was knocked out of the LaRue County game with a shoulder injury and was replaced by Jonathan Bernard. The senior will be a key ball carrier this year, but could move into the QB slot if needed. Other depth will come from younger players like sophomore Chase Payne, junior Wade Kelly and freshman Anthony Doran.

With the graduation of a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, Zach McCarthy and Curtis Logsdon, there has been plenty of chances for playing time.

Leading that push has been Bernard and junior Matt Husband. Both players got some carries a year ago. The third back will be junior Brandon Hanna.

“Those three we’ll really focus on,” Preston said.

The Chargers will be looking to build some depth in the backfield. At this point, the leading candidates for that are sophomore Taylor McMillen and Zack Martin. Senior Nathan Judd could also get some carries.

There will also be new players at wide receiver. The wishbone can have either one or two wide receivers. At this point, the duties will be handled by either junior Jordan Smith or senior T.J. Blevins.

At tight end, Preston is high on a group of candidates that includes junior Steven Wilson and senior Derek Keisler. Both junior Jesse Bratcher and sophomore Buzz Hadley could also step into games.

“There is a lot of potential in those guys,” Preston said. “They will be what we need. They just need game experience.”

Up front, the anchor for the offense will be senior Mason Kelly at tackle. The 6-3, 311-pound lineman is one of the strongest players in the area and is getting looks for major college programs. He has run a 5.28 40-yard dash. Kelly benches over 400-pounds and squats over 500 pounds.

“He is the best run-blocking lineman I’ve seen in a while,” Preston said. “That time for someone his size is impressive.”

The tackle on the opposite side will be senior Travis Miller who saw spot duty last season. Inside, the Charger line will include Cyle Jaggers, a senior, and junior Hunter Story at guard. The center will be Travis Vance. Jaggers and Vance both played at times last year.

Just like at running back, the Chargers will be looking to build depth along the front line as the season progresses. The top candidates will be junior Matt Thompson at guard along with sophomores Logan Pruitt, Trevor Waddell and Daniel Goodlett.

Preston is also high on 6-2, 240-pound freshman Andrew Okruch, who won the Kentucky State Middle School discus title in the spring. He did suffer a broken thumb at camp and has missed some practice time.

Defensive Alignment

Like most Class 4-A programs, many of the same Bullitt East players who will start on the offensive front will also see time on defense. The key for the coaching staff is to rotate the players in a way in which they are not worn out by the end of the game.

Obviously, Kelly will play a key role either as the nose guard or at tackle depending on the Bullitt East alignment at the time. When it is a three-man front, the nose tackle will be either Kelly or Thompson. In a four-man front, Kelly, Thompson and Jaggers will rotate at tackle along with junior Dalen Lance.

Additional depth will come from Pruitt, Waddell, Goodlett and Miller.

On the outside from what will be either defensive ends or outside linebackers, the Chargers will go with two players from a group that includes Hannah, Keisler, Bratcher and Wilson.

At linebacker, three starters will come from a group that would include Vance, Story and Husband as well as junior Cortez Brown and Hadley.

The Chargers pretty much lost their entire secondary from a year ago. At this point, Bowles and Wade Kelly will be at safety while McMillen and Bernard will be on the corners. Secondary depth will be provided by Judd, juniors Patrick Riggs, Jordan Smith and Kenneth Cook along with Blevins.

Bowles has often been listed as a defensive back in the past, but he has very rarely been on the field for defense. That will change this fall.

Bullitt East does have one key weapon back this year with the return of kicker Caleb Noe, a senior. Noe was impressive this summer at some kicking camps and he could be used on field goals up to 40 yards out.

Noe will once again be playing soccer for Bullitt East this season and moonlighting with football.

Bowles did most of the punting last season and could again this year with Noe also a candidate for the job.

For the past four years, McCarthy did the long snapping. That job is now up for grabs between McMillen and Hannah.

A year ago, the Chargers had a lot of depth and used a lot of players. That number will be somewhat less this season, but still about the number that other Class 4-A programs will be using.

"Generally, if you have 15 to 18 (varsity players) that’s pretty good,” Preston said. “I like to play a lot of kids. If they can play we’ll get them out there. Depth is something you develop as the season goes on. If they can get in there and help, it makes you a better team.”

The goals for the Chargers have not changed this season.

“Our goal every season is to continue to play with pride and carry on the tradition and shooting for district titles and regional titles,” Preston said. “We have the goal every year of a state championship.”

As the coach likes to point out, a high school football season is a marathon, not a sprint.

“With this group the biggest thing is to gain experience and get better,” Preston concluded. “We don’t have a lot of experience. We want to see the older kids continue to improve as a group as they go. I feel like we’ll play our best by the time we get to our district games like we did last year.”