Football Preview: Rolling with the punches
By BRANDON HURLEY
Questions of uncertainty will forever mark the beginning of the 2020 football season.
Can young football players safely navigate seven weeks of physical, body-to-body contact without contracting or spreading the Novel Coronavirus? How will a 64-team playoff bracket play out? And more Jefferson-centric, how will the Greene County Rams respond with a roster completely revamped and remade?
Only time will tell as the local football squad leaps into a land of the unknown. One thing is for certain, GCHS has a stable stocked full of athletes. The only issue is predicting how well they will perform.
Guys like current Iowa State offensive lineman Tyler Miller, UNI track and field member Carter Morton and record-setting quarterback Brent Riley set an example of excellence before departing over the summer. They raised the bar, breaking all kinds of individual and team records en route to the greatest two-year run in Greene County history. Ram second-year head coach Caden Duncan is pushing his current athletes to learn from last year’s experience which included an 8-0 start while also becoming one of the state’s highest scoring offenses and premier defenses. He hopes his guys observed under the trio’s tutelage to use it as fuel for the 2020 slate. There can be a tremendous amount of value sitting behind legends, only if the young athletes harness the lessons correctly.
“It doesn’t mean that the guys we have now aren’t talented and that’s kind of the way we’re going about it,” Duncan said. “We think we really have a lot of talent, a great group of guys that are going to step up into some different roles this year. They are going to step into those bigger opportunities and really shine for us. We think we’re going to surprise some people.”
Duncan and his staff don’t view the openings throughout the roster as a negative but as a chance to re-load. The Rams don’t believe in rebuilding, but in recharging a new group to continue the already sustained success. With a favorable district slate, anything can happen, even a potential district title is within Greene County’s grasp.
“A lot of people take a look at (us) and they see everything we lost, all the stats that we lost, all the linemen that we lost,” Duncan said. “But we view it as an opportunity to get a lot of guys who are pumped up and ready to step up into bigger roles and prove themselves.”
Many of Greene County’s most important players entering Friday’s showdown with Perry have seen limited varsity action, if at all.
Take new Greene County quarterback Bryce Stalder for example. He steps in to try and replace the most prolific gun-slinger in school history (Brent Riley), who threw for more than 4,000 yards in his career. Stalder, a junior, is quite the athlete himself, with a laser arm to boot, but has only thrown three varsity passes in his brief career. Adding to it, he’s never started under center at the highest level. But, Stalder has embraced the opportunity given to him. He’s the fastest guy on the team, which opens up all sorts of options off the snap, though he’s also added a significant amount of muscle, Duncan said. Stalder is poised to step into the spotlight and excel, adding a new wrinkle to an offense that was one of the state’s best a year ago. He understands the schemes and adjusts well on the fly.
“He’s definitely going to give us that dimension of the quarterback run game, which in the past, we’ve had good athletes at quarterback, but not necessarily have we utilized them as much in the running game,” Duncan said. “Bryce is also doing a great job in the passing game, too. He has a really lively arm, and he’s a very smart kid. He’s picking up on all the schemes. He’s reading defenses and things like that.”
Veteran wide receiver Jaxon Warnke will anchor a talented receiving corps that could certainly help ease Stalder’s transition. Warnke, a tall, athletic senior hauled in 19 receptions last fall and scored four touchdowns. He’ll be flanked by Jackson Morton and Zach Goff as well as a few other eagerly awaiting pass catchers.
“Receiver is definitely where we have the most depth,” Duncan said. “We feel like we have 6-8 guys who could contribute. Warnke is a big, lanky and athletic kid. And we’ve also got Jackson Morton, who’s going to going to be a good player for us this year on both sides of the ball. He’s going to really step up into some new roles. Goff is another lanky, really athletic kid who will make some acrobatic catches.”
Replacing the school’s all-time leading rusher (Colby Kafer) is a tall task for any team, which is why the Rams have decided to unfold a committee of ball-carriers. Nathan Black and Cameron Miller are the top two candidates as game day nears. Black possess the body of a wide receiver but plays like a well-conditioned running back. Miller provides the often-cherished but sometimes forgotten ability of a tough-nosed, straight forward runner.
“He’s kind of built like a bowling ball and he’s a very hard runner,” Duncan said..
A new-look offensive line will pave the way for Stalder and company. No longer can the Rams pick their holes behind a 6-9, 300 pound offensive lineman, a role which Tyler Miller filled for three years. Miller raised the level of competition in practice, which should rub off on the new guys this fall.
“(Our guys) knew they had to bring it all the time. They picked up on Tyler’s intensity, his work ethic and some of his attention to detail that he had with his craft,” Duncan said. “I think they, they understand that it’s a tall task in front of them not to necessarily replicate what Tyler did but just fill those shoes as best they can.
(Offensive line) is probably the position where we have the least amount of depth on the team. But even with that said, we have multiple guys at each position who are competing hard and focused on their fundamentals, working from the ground up.”
The Greene County defense certainly could be a strong point as well, especially in the secondary. Black, Goff (2 INT) and Jackson Morton all saw significant action as cornerbacks last fall, and return to anchor a defense that terrified opposing offenses. Bradyn Smith anchors a young but talented linebacking core. Smith (who was third on the team in tackles last year with 42.5) should be one of the team’s loudest and brightest leaders, Duncan said.
“We think we can be pretty versatile,” Duncan said. “You’ll see us more in the three front on defense then in previous years because we’ve got more depth in the secondary, then we do up front. But I think we’re pretty strong and we’ve got some guys who we feel like can rotate in to keep them fresh and really try to cause some havoc. We’re going to be pretty aggressive on defense.”
For Greene County, football means more than wins and losses. It’s a way of life. The students live and breathe the sport, spending their summer and offseason lifting weights, running sprints and analyzing the X’s and O’s. Though the 2020 season may feel a little different with various guidelines focused on curtailing COVID-19, the Rams are fine sacrificing comfort a chance to take the gridiron. If it means donning helmet shields, social distancing and constant hand-sanitizing, so be it. All that matters is putting on a show for their friends and family and piling up victories.
“I think they understand the importance of it definitely because football is such a community supported sport,” Duncan said. “When you think of the (the) fall in small town I like to think of those Friday Night Lights and the football team and things like that. It’s important that we all are in this together. We know that the community takes a lot of pride in our team. We want to put a product out there that they can be proud of.”
Duncan is encouraging his athletes to stay flexible, to embrace change. The goal is to adjust and adapt and not only become stronger, but more successful. With a shortened, seven week schedule, the opportunities for wins are even less. Each game becomes that much more important, more vital to Greene County and it’s supporters.
“Even with all the different regulations and guidelines we’ve got going on, we want to do everything we can to make that happen,” Duncan said. “(Football) is just a great source of pride through the school and extended through multiple communities within our district. It’s very important to us.”
Greene County opens the 2020 slate against rival Perry Friday night in Perry. The Bluejays have lost 18 straight games dating back to the 2017 season. The Rams begin Class 2A, District 9 play
in week 3 at home against Atlantic on Sept. 11.
- All games start at 7 p.m. on a Friday unless noted otherwise
7:15 p.m. Aug. 28 - at Perry (Non-District)
Sept. 4 - vs. South Central Calhoun (Non-District)
Sept. 11 vs. Atlantic
Sept. 18 vs. Des Moines Christian
Sept. 25 at Red Oak
Oct. 2 vs. Clarinda
Oct. 9 at Shenandoah
Oct. 16 - Playoffs, first round