Hornets debut under Rulo at home tonight at 7 o'clock
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
It will be an historic occasion – one not seen here in 56 years – when the Chillicothe High School football Hornets take Bob Fairchild Field at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II for their 2018 season opener tonight.
The 7 p.m. game will be CHS’ first since 1962 in which the Hornets are not coached by either the field’s namesake or the person primarily responsible for the design of the now-6-years-old stadium in which it is located.
After 35 years of peerless guidance from Fairchild from 1963-97 and 20 more years of highly-successful leadership from Phil Willard – both former Hornets players, this year’s Chillicothe squad will commence play under new head coach Tim Rulo. He is the first non-CHS alumnus to be head coach since Harry Hayes’ last year in 1962.
The new head coach, who brings a 10-years record of 83-37 at South Callaway and Jefferson City: Helias to the Chillicothe gig will send a largely-untested squad to the gridiron tonight against a hungry Marshall Owls team which has dropped its last 21 contests.
The new coach seeks to tamp down the importance placed on this game.
“There’s so much buildup to week one, but, in reality, there are so many more weeks ahead of us, weeks when we need to get better,” he observes.
Two of those 21 consecutive MHS defeats were administered by Chillicothe, including a 30-0 CHS win a year ago in a game terminated at halftime after torrential rain and lightning arrived and there was not a suitable option for resuming the game on a subsequent occasion.
Adam Huse begins his second season as Marshall head coach hoping to begin reversing the trend that has seen the once-dynamic Owls program experience back-to-back winless campaigns.
“We’re a whole lot closer (to victory) than we were at this time last year,” Huse asserted recently to Marshall Democrat-News sports editor Chris Allen. “The older (players) have bought in and the younger ones have followed them.”
Being the first opponent of Chillicothe’s “Rulo era” tonight won’t be the Owls’ first participation in a historic CHS football occasion.
It was exactly six years ago – Aug. 24, 2012 – that CHS debuted Litton Stadium II with a contest against Marshall. Although Willard had planned out virtually every aspect of the still-sensational and highly-regarded facility that was constructed over the previous year-plus, he was not able to plot a way to christen the new stadium with a victory. In a close battle throughout, a veteran MHS squad used a late, 63-yards touchdown run by senior quarterback Alex Maupin to nip Chillicothe, 26-25.
Rulo hopes to avoid a similar debut disappointment tonight.
In terms of the two teams’ personnel and styles of play for tonight’s 2018 season opener, neither is awash in returning starters, but Marshall does have the numbers advantage there.
Whereas Chillicothe has only three 2017 starters back – all on the defensive side and two at new positions, the Owls return a handful or more on each side of the ball, led by 3-times all-North Central Missouri College wide receiver Jaylen Varner (86 career receptions for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns). The 185-pounds Varner has the strength and jumping ability to come down with “50-50” passes and also the speed to beat coverage either before or after a catch.
In an indication the Owls likely will throw more often – maybe much more often – than they run, Huse has shifted last year’s two starting running backs – speedy Jairon Jasper (also 185 pounds) and Duffin Makings (165 pounds) – to wide receiver, where he already had talented junior Jace Lance (150 pounds, 21 receptions for 214 yards and two TDs in 2017) as a solid returnee.
“They have so many athletes,” Rulo praises.
To throw to them, the Owls will keep their starting quarterback’s job in the family as sophomore Ben Haug (170 pounds) succeeds big brother John. The younger Haug, a starter at safety part of last year, doesn’t have well-developed passing skills yet, but should get help from the strong receiving corps, in terms of creating separation for easier throws and making catches of off-target aerials. In addition, B. Haug has quickness that should give him mobility for buying extra time to throw or scrambling for “plus” yardage, as well as some designed runs.
“We’re going to have to make that quarterback feel uncomfortable and going to have to keep him in the pocket, as well,” details the CHS coach.
“He’s very athletic and makes plays,” Huse says of his new signalcaller.
To make the air attack it’s most viable, the Marshall head coach told Allen, there will need to be a credible running-game threat.
“We’ve got to make (opponents’) linebackers and safeties go ‘downhill’ (initially advance toward the line of scrimmage) to cover the run,” he stated.
While last year’s starting running backs now will be on wings or split wide, Marshall believes it has suitable replacements for them in strong sophomore fullback Caden Kraft and senior speedster Tariq Coleman, who could not play last year because of an eligibility issue, the Marshall newspaper reports.
“Nobody better be taking this team lightly,” the Hornets coach cautions.
Affecting – perhaps critically – how well Marshall is able to exploit their “skill positions” talent will be the sturdiness of the offensive line, of course.
There, MHS has only one returning full-time starter – center Zavion Winn (215 pounds, sr.). Tavion Bradshaw, who started at guard against CHS a year ago, but later became a reserve, could be at guard or tackle, but the rest of the line will be new.
Because of the Owls’ expected reliance on the pass and based on the approach shown in last Friday’s “jamboree” scrimmage against pass-heavy Columbia: Father Tolton Regional, Chillicothe figures to use a 4-2-5 or 4-3-4 defensive alignment much of the time tonight.
In that case, returning junior defensive lineman Isaih Kille will be an end, as he was full-time last year. When the Hornets use a 5-man front this year, he’s projected to slip inside to tackle. That’s similar to the approach used successfully with then-senior Kayde Burton last year.
“We have a lot of speed that we’re putting down on our defensive line and, I think, dialed in for a full game, that’s going to be a bear for some teams, especially in pass protection,” Rulo opines.
The other two returning Hornets starters are seniors Lavery Jones and Cade Koehly. Koehly has moved from end to linebacker, where he’ll be teamed with junior Dawson Wheeler. Jones started at cornerback in ’17, but will be free safety this fall.
In terms of how Marshall defends Chillicothe, the Owls are likely to stay with a 4-3 look, but have shifted some personnel around.
Returning in their positions from last year are middle linebacker Ethan Stickels (170, jr.) and secondary members Jasper, Varner, Makings, and Keenan Bregman (150, sr.).
Marshall allowed an average of over 43 points and 365.5 rushing yards per game a year ago, but that was an improvement from 2016. Significantly cutting those numbers will be a major required factor for MHS to start winning some games.
Offensively, the all-new Chillicothe unit figures to see both senior Lavery Jones and junior Jaden Winder spend time at quarterback, while Koehly, Kille, Kam Ward, Isaak Rasche, Matt Callen, Deon Reynolds, and perhaps others circulate through the running back/wingback spots in the primary “flexbone” set.
“You might see, early in the season, a few more guys rotating in (at backfield spots) than you normally would in years past,” predicts Rulo.
More details on those involved in Chillicothe’s prospective player rotations is available in the C-T Football Preview edition which was included with Wednesday’s edition of the C-T.
Strategically, tonight’s game could come down to which side is able to cash in for points on those occasions when they move the ball. Given the inexperience of the Chillicothe offense and some ball-security issues it had during the “jamboree” and Marshall’s inexperience at quarterback, turnovers could play a huge role.
Health-wise for Chillicothe, the only issue (as of the deadline for this edition) was senior Kyler Reed, anticipated to be the starting left tackle on offense.
He came away from last week’s “jamboree” with shoulder soreness and has not fully practiced the early part of this week.
Rulo indicated he believes Reed will be able to play. If he can’t or needs to be spelled periodically, senior James Fainter is likely to be his replacement.
Asked for what he viewed as the game’s keys, the Chillicothe coach responded, “(No.) One is not give up the big play, whether that’s on defense or special teams. … No. 2 is we’ve got to take the ball away… We’ve also got to take care of the football. … Offensively, we need to be physical. We need to burn some clock.”
All things considered, with the lineup and coaching staff turnover – only one assistant coach was on the varsity staff last year, Rulo declares himself satisfied with his team’s readiness.
“You always wish you could do more,” he admits, “… but, in the end, I think the kids responded really well.”