High School Football Preview: A DYNASTY NEARS
By BRANDON HURLEY
Certainties are anything but in high school football.
Graduations, injuries and surprises often plague even the most tradition-rich programs.
Greene County, on the other hand, finds itself in prime position.
An elusive district title is well within reach, if not a near certainty, as the Ram football team opens the 2021 season Friday. GCHS is loaded and ready to pounce, having avoided the dreaded mass graduation many programs endure each year. They certainly look healthy as kick-off nears, bolstered by one of the state’s most veteran lineups.
Greene County produced one of the top offenses in the entire state a year ago, and they poised to cause even more pain-inducing damage. They return nearly an entire offense which includes their top passer (Bryce Stalder), top running back (Nate Black) as well as their top all-purpose weapon in Jackson Morton, who tallied 572 total yards and nine touchdowns despite missing the last four and a half games due to injury. Bradyn Smith led the Rams with 64.5 tackles and 12 tackles for loss last fall, poised to anchor a dynamic defense ready to pounce.
The dynasty is nearing a crescendo.
The 2021 fall slate paves the way for a number of potential milestones. Greene County presides over Class 2A, District 8 as the heavy favorites.
The Rams last won a district title in 2006, a drought which has extended to 15 years.
Additionally, the Rams have not strung together four consecutive winning seasons in more than 15 years. Greene County began this recent stretch of success coming off six straight .500 or worse campaigns, only having strung together back-to-back winning seasons in 2006 and 2007. The Rams have won just two outright district titles in the last 22 years (1999 and 2006), none coming in the last decade.
It’s safe to assume Greene County is certainly on the cusp of sustained greatness, having tallied a 24-7 record over the past three seasons highlighted by a trio of playoff victories and a number of All-State selections. Despite the regular success, Greene County continues to come up inches short of a district title. The Rams did share a piece of the district title in 2018, but in the two years since they’ve finished runner up.
Experience and athleticism, as cliche as they may be, are vital in Greene County’s path to success. Natural talent can only take a team so far, but with an experienced roster eager for opening kick-off, great things are on the horizon. Head coach Caden Duncan believes in his guys, a unit which ripped off a 7-3 record a season ago, resulting in back-to-back playoff wins for the first time in Greene County history.
“The experiences is invaluable. All the sudden, instead of having guys who have never gone through any of those trials and tribulations, they’ve been through all that kind of stuff before,” Duncan said. “Now, they know how to react during those types of situations. They can help coach the younger guys up on all the little things that we’re going to experience. Those guys have a lot more confidence in going into the season just because they’ve been through it. It should pay off for us.”
GCHS caught fire midway through the 2020 slate, ripping off six straight victories after a 1-2 start, which included playoff shutouts over Red Oak (49-0) and Clarinda (24-0) before falling to PCM in the third round.
A roster full of returning starters has the Rams poised for the next step.
Bryce Stalder was remarkably consistent in his first year under center, tallying 23 total touchdowns, 1,782 total yards and just five interceptions in 10 games last fall, even more impressive considering he’d never seen much action at QB prior. Coach Duncan expects his second-year gunslinger to take another big step in 2021.
“His confidence is way higher right now. Last year, was really his first full year playing quarterback ever,” the coach said. “He’s throwing the ball with so much more velocity with a lot tighter spirals, things like that. His accuracy is through the roof compared to last year.”
The senior has also bulked up in the offseason in addition to adding speed, a big plus for a guy who ran for eight touchdowns and 570 yards for a per carry average of 6.1 yards last season. There are a few areas Stalder does need to shore up, mainly making the correct reads, and if he can limit his turnovers, the offense will open up, presenting Greene County with an unlimited amount of possibilities.
“He knows he’s got to take care of the football, he did a pretty good job of that last year,” Duncan said. “We want to minimize that even more. We really want to take care of the ball, he knows that we’re going to take shots in the passing game. We’re going to run the ball with him a lot using his athleticism.
The main thing that he is aware of that will be preached going forward is we have to take care of the ball, we don’t want to give away the ball. We know when we can take shots, so we want to be careful and maintain possession.”
Stalder will hand the ball off to a bevy of options, adding even more fuel to the fire.
DEPTH AT RB
Last year’s run-first offense wasn’t a fluke - the Rams possess an absurd amount of backfield talent, which Duncan believes can even go as deep as five guys.
Nate Black returns as the resident workhorse after tallying 752 yards and six touchdowns last year, helping spearhead a rushing attack which produced 1,735 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 games. Every Ram athlete who received five or more carries in 2020 returns, along with a slew of new potential ball carriers. The deep talent pool has Duncan seething with excitement. The accessibility allows Greene County’s offense to unleash an unpredictable scheme, even if they do pound the ball on the ground more often than not. The confusion a strong rotation creates is a tremendous lightning rod, Duncan said.
“(Our strength is) just the sheer amount of running threats that we have. We think we’re four or five deep at our tailback position,” Duncan said. “We think we’ve got receivers who can get the ball on sweeps and things like that. So, being able to keep those guys fresh, is huge.
Whenever you can have a fresh set of legs and they’re running the ball, it begins to wear defenses down.”
Morton is likely Greene County’s most versatile weapon outside of Stalder’s duties under center, providing a unique skillset the Rams plan to exploit often. The senior can tote the ball between the tackles (279 yards, seven touchdowns) while he’s also shown a consistent ability to line up as receiver and haul in some big passes, as evidenced by his 18 catches for 293 yards and two touchdowns last fall. The senior is not exactly a secret weapon, but a guy defenses will have to key on every time he steps on to the field.
“He’s kind of a Swiss Army knife, he can do all sorts of different things,” Duncan said. “We’d like to use him in different ways. Sometimes he’ll be out wide, sometimes he’s in the slot and sometimes he’s in the backfield. We’re going to try to be smart with him, try not to put him in harm’s way all the time. But we also know he’s a physical football player and he seeks out that contact sometimes. We’re not going to tell him to tone that down or anything. He really causes problems for for opponents on both sides of the ball.”
The offense provides plenty of opportunities for electricity, though Greene County’s defense may be even more potent.
Senior Bradyn Smith anchors a Rams defensive unit hungry to build off their late season surge. The linebacker has recorded 115 career tackles to go with 25 tackles for loss. He’s entering his third season as a full-time starter, anxious to invoke hurt on opposing offenses, always managing to find his way to the action, no matter the play call.
“He’s just really smart,” Duncan said. “He’s always had great instincts. And he’s very, very coachable.
Bradyn has taken everything that’s ever been taught to him, he takes it to heart, and then he applies it to when he’s in game action.”
Not only is Smith one of Greene County’s top defenders, he’s really grown into his role as a vocal leader, directing traffic and keeping his teammates in line. Add that to an increased strength and quickness provided by the Rams’ offseason workouts, and opposing offenses should have their hands full.
“I’m really looking for him to have a huge year for us,” Duncan said.
The Rams allowed just 54 total points during their six game winning streak last year, holding opponents to an average of eight points per game, aided by consecutive playoff shutouts. The defensive unit forced 20 total turnovers in 10 games, including 10 interceptions (three alone by Max Riley) as well as 10 fumble recoveries.
The Rams return most of last year’s secondary minus Jaxon Warnke and Zach Goff, which includes Richard Daugherty, Riley, Morton and Patrick Daugherty. The Rams only twice allowed more than 20 points in a single game last fall. The 11-man unit is eager to devastate opponents, likely sporting one of the stingiest defenses in the district. An experienced and anxious defense could pay big dividends.
“(Our) overall physicality and just (our) confidence (are our strengths),” Duncan said. “It goes back to our overall experience last year. We had a lot of new guys out there on defense last year. Now, we predominantly (have) guys that have played a lot of football. They know how to get lined up right away. They’re playing fast, they’re not thinking about stuff. They just get up there and they know their alignment, then boom, they fly to the football.
I think our speed and our physicality, and just playing fast would be really our strengths.”
DISTRICT TITLE OR BUST
The Greene County Rams, on paper, are the best team in Class 2A, District 8, ready to pounce on a coveted title. They are one of only two schools in the grouping which posted a winning record last fall, along with Des Moines Christian at 4-3. Gone is 2020 champion Atlantic (who moved up to 3A) and in their place is Clarke, who mustered a 1-7 record last year. District 8 also includes Clarinda (4-5 overall in 2020), Shenandoah (3-5 overall) and Red Oak (0-8 overall). Greene County possess some of the top individual athletes in the district - in talent and experience - and should produce fairly significant noise when district play begins in week four.
It’s championship or bust, Duncan said. All signs point toward capturing the elusive honor.
“I think it’s definitely the expectation,” the coach said. “We see our district as having some challenges, but our expectation is we want to go in and compete every single Friday night. Our goal is to have a district championship going into playoffs.”
The key, the coach said, is putting forth the necessary passion each and every time out. Though a few of Greene County’s opponents may seem outmanned, at least on paper, Duncan does not want his guys overlooking anyone.
“We have to be consistent, we can’t play (down) to the level of our competition,” he said. “And in those big games, we always talk about turnovers. Whoever wins the turnover battle that’s usually who wins the game. If you look at our previous big games, the turnovers were the big plays. That will be our point of emphasis.”
The Rams opened the year with an overtime loss, 29-27 to AC/GC in Guthrie Center. Greene County hosts Perry Sept. 3 in their home-opener.