THE EARLY LEAD | FOOTBALL IS BACK
By BRANDON HURLEY
JEFFERSON - It’s here, can you believe it? August means one thing around these parts, at least for this sports guy... FOOTBALL SEASON IS BACK.
With the fall schedule less than a few weeks away, I’ve decided to simplify Greene County’s impending 2019 campaign into 10 points I find most intriguing. In no way, shape or form is this gospel, or fact, these are my opinions only. So take it all with a grain of salt.
The list of 10 is separated into two categories: five things to look forward to and five, let’s call them potential concerns, to be cautious of.
Let’s start with the good, shall we?
After going 8-1 in the regular season a year ago, spending most of the fall ranked in the top 10 and near the top of the state both offensively and defensively, the Rams certainly have some mighty big expectations to match this go around. All this while a new, first-time head coach takes over the reigns, former Panorama assistant Caden Duncan.
So, let’s get down to it, what do Greene County fans have to look forward to?
TOP FIVE INTRIGUING STORYLINES
While there are a number of positives heading into Greene County’s 2019 schedule, I’ve tried to dwindle the list down to the five most captivating storylines. And here we go:
1. A future D-1 athlete anchors the offensive line
Senior Tyler Miller will generate quite a bit of buzz yet again this fall. the 6’9” three star offensive tackle will create some monster holes for Colby Kafer and company this spring. Miller is another year stronger and faster, and will be able to understand the game even more. He was a huge cornerstone for the 8-2 Rams a year ago, and once again will be a heck of an anchor. As the only Division I scholarship athlete (football) in program history, the fanfare will be much deserved. With rare size and quickness, Miller could help protect one of the state’s top returning passers (Brent Riley) and he’ll pave the way for his running back (Kafer), who’s tallied 1,715 total yards and 18 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
2. The strength lies in the offensive attack
Miller’s sheer size and skill leads me to my next point - Greene County should have absolutely not trouble producing big numbers this season. It all starts with record-setting Brent Riley under center. This marks his second full year at the helm, which should be a good one at that. The senior threw for a Greene County record 2,242 yards and 22 touchdown, completing 52 percent of his passes. His top target from last fall as well. Carter Morton hauled in 36 passes for 800 yards and seven touchdowns a season ago, which was second in the district for yardage and third for touchdown receptions.
Riley will need to find a suitable No. 2, as his next three top targets from last fall all graduated. Lance Hughes, Trey Hinote and Clint Dennhardt combined for 1,046 yards, 71 catches and 11 touchdowns.
Can Tyler Teeples, Will Hansen or Xavier Hayes step into fill that void?
Enough of that what if came, the Rams also have Kafer returning at tailback. He ran for 776 yards last season, a 7.1 yards per carry average, scoring eight times. Joel Ward performed admirably in mostly mop up duty, rushing for a pair of scores and 154 yards (5.7 ypc).
It’ll be interesting to see where Duncan takes the Ram offense this year. Greene County often used the run and an up-tempo offense to set up the pass last year under Mitch Moore. Will we maybe see Duncan utilize Riley’s speed more often this year? Kafer is a nice option as a pass catcher out of the backfield, his shiftiness and his ability to break tackles has been a welcome sight over the last two years. There are tons of options for one of the most lethal offenses in 2A, only time will tell how it’s used.
3. A favorable schedule
The district title race is Greene County’s to lose, if we are being honest. The 2018 co-champions certainly bring back the most talent. I see no issue with the Rams possibly matching last season’s win total. Many of Class 2A, District 9’s top players have graduated from what seems to be once again a slightly above average district.
Shenandoah will continue to be a bottom feeder though they will be improved, Kuemper lost its leading tackler, their running back and top receiver. The district’s top passer and best offensive producer is gone (Kaden Ludwig, OA-BCIG) while Red Oak lost some of its most veteran players as well.
The Rams will play five of their nine games at home, including their season-opener against long-time rival, Perry. The a few of Greene County’s toughest games are at home as well, as Gilbert, Kuemper and Red Oak all make a visit to Jefferson. The most treacherous road games will be against Kody Kruschwitz (2.247 yards passing, 20 TDs) and Nevada in addition to the always dangerous Atlantic Trojans. The always lengthy road trip to Shenandoah will be a tall task as well. But as a whole, Greene County’s schedule should play in their favor, which could produce in the neighborhood of six to eight wins.
4. A defense strengthens
Greene County’s defense was nasty throughout the entirety of 2018 campaign, setting all kinds of records, and it should prove to be quite formidable this fall as well. The Rams were consistently one of the best run defenses in the state a year ago while they didn’t do too shabby against the pass, either. They return a strong core, including Miller who will help anchor a feisty defensive line though they did lose all-state defensive end Bryce Hoyle. Nick Breon (16 tackles for loss in 2018) is back at linebacker while Will Hansen, Xavier Hayes and Carter Morton provide some nice depth. Breon was tied for the team lead last fall with five sacks while Hansen was third with four sacks.
Losing Austin Delp from the secondary will hurt while Clay Smith graduating from the linebacker position will be tough to replace as well. But Morton will anchor a strong secondary thanks to his team-best three interceptions while Joe Patterson should be pivotal on the defensive line. There’s plenty of unproven talent on the defensive roster, though it may take a little bit of time to adjust.
5. A rejuveneced rivalry
The game of the year will take place week 7 as Greene County hosts Kuemper Catholic on Oct. 4. Not only does it mark yet another year against their long-time rivals, but the Rams are in search of some much deserved revenge. Greene County entered last season’s showdown with a sparkling 5-0 before the Knights ended dreams of an undefeated run, silencing the Ram attack, 16-8.
Kuemper has won the last two regular season meetings by just 15 points. It’s time for Greene County to get back on the board.
This year’s battle has some extra juice as well, as it provides a rare D-I matchup. Kuemper senior defensive end Blaise Gunnerson, a Class of 2020 three star recruit, recently announced his commitment to play football at Nebraska.
With Tyler Miller’s commitment to ISU in the spring, it means the pair will do battle in the trenches all game long. It’s a matchup sure to spark interest throughout the Midwest, and I for sure I’m excited for October.
WHAT TO BE CAUTIOUS OF
1. A new regime
How will the beginning of the Caden Duncan era go? Like it or not, he has some decently sized shoes to fill. The former Prairie Valley High School running back takes over the Greene County program following in the footsteps of current Des Moines Roosevelt head coach Mitch Moore. Moore led the Rams to an 8-1 regular season record and a return trip to the playoffs, engineering one of the state’s most statistically sound programs.
Duncan, a 2011 high school graduate, already has six years of coaching experience under his belt despite the young age. He was an assistant for three years in Gowrie before spending the last three in Panora as an assistant for the Panorama Panthers.
Like any coaching change, especially in high school, it will take a bit of time for everyone to get adjusted to the new scheme. This will be Duncan’s first head coaching job, similar to what Moore walked into more than two years ago. Duncan was a well-respected strength and conditioning coach at Panorama, which should bode well for a Greene County program that was on the rise in that area.
It does help that Duncan attended high school and college with Ram offensive coordinator Cole Jaeschke. The pair should form a quick bond, which could provide a quick transition for the hungry Greene County athletes.
2. Defensive holes
As mentioned briefly above, the Greene County Rams must replace a handful of their most spirited defensive stalwarts. Clay Smith, Austin Delp and all-state defensive end Bryce Hoyle formed quite the trio a year ago, both on the field and in the huddle. New leaders must step up quickly, as the Rams will struggle with experience in many of the most vital positions. Hoyle and Brock Wuebker are both substantial losses on the defensive line (they combined for 98 tackles and five fumble recoveries) while Smith and Delp were two of the team’s most vocal leaders. Trey Hinote was a stud in the secondary as well, so finding quick replacements for those five guys is key. It helps having Miller on the defensive line, which will force teams to run away from the 6’9 senior.
3. In search of a sidekick
Running back Colby Kafer certainly has the speed and strength to carry an entire workload this fall, but he was often at his most dangerous when spelled by Clint Dennhardt. The departed Ram was a dynamic playmaker out of the backfield and helped produce one of the state’s top duos in the state. Dennhardt ran for a district-best 851 yards and 15 touchdowns while he also caught 23 balls which produced four touchdowns. Replacing 19 touchdowns is never easy, and I’m sure the Rams having a worthy stable behind Kafer, but it may take some time to find the right guy.
4. Living up to expectations
There’s no easy way to put this, but with a reasonable schedule, a huge chunk of returning starters and one of the most prized lineman in the state the Rams are poised for another big year. Anything short of a Class 2A, District 9 title and a deep run into the playoffs will be rather disappointing. Can the Rams handle the pressure? They may not be the most highly-regarded throughout the state, but the Rams sure have the talent and experience to compete with Iowa’s best. The stars seem to be aligning, but now it comes down to performing when the lights are brightest. Greene County is no longer the underdog, and in my opinion, they are the district title favorites. Time to rise to the occasion.
5. Can the Rams take the next step?
This isn’t the most pressing concern, obviously, but can Greene County not only make the playoffs again, but will they capture that elusive postseason victory? They held an early lead over Benton last October before the wheels fell off, resulting in a 45-20 loss in the first round of the 2A playoffs. It was a sudden halt to a storybook campaign, but certainly nothing to hang their heads over. This year, the Rams will have tons of expectations hovering over the season. Wins are what this school district wants and deserves, the next logical move is a district championship and a playoff win.
The state’s top two passers graduated, PCM’s Reed Worth and OA-BCIG’s Kaden Ludwig while the top seven rushers all graduated as well. In addition, five of the state’s top six tacklers are gone, which leaves a significant hole to be replaced.
In District 9 alone, four of the five top tacklers will not return, while the top passer and top running back (Dennhardt) are gone. The throne is for the taking.
The 2019 football season gets underway August 30 in Jefferson as Greene County takes on longtime rival Perry, hoping to retain the Cowbell. We are a mere 22 days away. Buckle up.