C-T 2019 AREA HS FOOTBALL PREVIEWS: Offseason injury to would-be returning starting quarterback, daunting early slate will complicate Stevens' third year in charge of Bulldogs
BROOKFIELD, Mo. — Regaining gridiron traction in the wake of posting only three wins the past two seasons combined is the immediate assignment for third-year Brookfield High Bulldogs head coach Scott Stevens this fall.
Owner of one of the more-successful football heritages in north Missouri, Brookfield is not used to such a predicament, so time probably isn’t an ally of Stevens, who came in two years ago from Trenton with no prior head coaching experience.
That the Bulldogs exited last season with only one tally mark in the “wins” column does not fully reflect their level of competitiveness against a very tough schedule which saw six of BHS’ nine regular-season opponents post seven or more victories. Especially brutal was the opening stretch in which the first four foes finished a composite 36-10.
Even with a veteran group that held its own, losses to Palmyra, Monroe City, Marceline, and Lexington left Brookfield still winless at midseason and it never recovered.
“We started very strong with three really close losses to three very good teams,” recalls Stevens. “In those three games, we lost by a combined 12 points.”
The last of those three might have been the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” The Bulldogs’ annual “Bell Game” grudge match with neighbor Marceline was seconds away from heading to overtime when the Tigers’ Cullen Bruner booted a field goal on the final play to win it, 9-6.
Even though week six finally shattered Brookfield’s goose egg with a runaway win at Ewing: Highland, losses continued piling up, even though – heading into the regular-season finale at Clark County – the widest margin of BHS defeat had been 18 points at Lexington and four had been 1-score games at the final horn.
Even in the postseason, Brookfield held its own, falling to second-seeded and eventual district-finalist Lawson on the road by only 14 points. So, 2018 could have looked different with a key play or two or a break here or there.
That it didn’t adds to concerns over what 2019 will bring, since the Bulldogs’ schedule is unchanged (except for the inversion of the game sites).
Considering the one opponent in this fall’s first four weeks that didn’t win at least nine games last year – Palmyra – is Stevens’ pick as the preseason favorite in the always-demanding Clarence Cannon Conference after 7-4 ledger last year, “getting out of the blocks” fast doesn’t project to be any easier than it was last year. Factor in that Brookfield this year has only about half the number of returning starters it had at the outset of 2018 and one can see trouble looming in the headlights.
To try to thwart a rerun, Stevens has changed the BHS offense to a wing-T from the “flexbone.” The hope is that, with certainty before the play begins, mistakes – particularly turnovers from rushed decisions and riskier ball exchanges – will be reduced and drives can be sustained and, hopefully, finished with points.
“Turnovers really hurt us last year and are something we have to fix going into this season,” admits the Brookfield coach.
The switch in offense proved timely when an offseason shoulder injury to would-be returning starting quarterback Derek Liebhart (463 rushing yards 671 passing a year ago) meant he’d miss much of all of this season.
Stepping into the void will be junior Carson Beckman (5’8”, 150).
"Carson has done an extraordinary job of learning this offense," Stevens told GateHouse Media’s Henry Janssen of the Linn County Leader recently. "Beyond that, we have a number of guys who we think can be really dangerous running the football.
In the Bulldogs’ backfield will be returning halfback Trace Alexander (5’11”, 195) and Dawson Baker (6’, 175), who started as a freshman, but missed last year with an injury, Stevens notes. Gabe Rodriguez (5’8”, 155) and Tyler Polley (5’10”, 165) also look likely to get some backfield action. All four of them, like Beckman and Liebhart, are juniors.
"We feel like we have four guys who are going to be able to run the football, and that's going to go a long way toward keeping our defense off the field as much as we can," the coach told Janssen. "That was one of our major faults last year. We had too many possessions that were just too short and, by the time we get late into ballgames, the wheels fell off on the defensive side of the ball.”
Brookfield’s offensive line has a larger share of question marks, however.
The lone returning starter is senior Lane Thudium (6’2”, 220), who’ll be in his third year as a first-stringer. Among top prospects for occupying the other four slots inside are senior Dylan Brundage (5’10”, 215) and huge sophomore Austin Tucker (6’5”, 300).
“We're still trying to figure out exactly what we have and how all of the pieces fit together,” acknowledges Stevens.
Wide receiver/end possibilities include Elijah Martinez (5’11”, 160, sr.), Mason Swift (6’, 150, sr.), and Garret Starlin (5’10”, 175, jr.).
“We have put in a new offense that fits our guys much better,” Stevens states. We will have some quickness, not only in the ‘skill’ positions, but also up front.
“We expect to limit our turnovers and really control the football.”
On defense, there’s a bit more experience (four starters) returning, but obviously still not a huge amount. Liebhart (53 tackles, 2 interceptions, one fumble forced) would have been the top returning tackler (there is a chance he might become available again late in the season).
At linebacker, Alexander (43 tackles in 2018) should lead the way with the returned Baker joining him, but that’s the limit of the experience.
Similarly, Rodriguez becomes the lone returnee in the secondary. Candidates to join him include Beckman, seniors Elijah Martinez and Swift, and juniors Polley and Starlin.
On the front line, Jacob Jackman (5’8”, 190, jr.) is back at one of the tackle positions and Jeremy Williams (6’3”, 200, sr.) at an end. Williams got in on 33 tackles a year ago, the coach reports. Either Brundage or Tucker figures to be the other tackle.
The inexperience on defense, exacerbated by Liebhart’s unplanned absence figures to significantly decrease Brookfield’s ability to hold down opponents’ offenses after last year’s club surrendered more than 21 points only once in its first six outings before faltering under the workload created by the ineffective offense.
As a result, the desired ball control the shift in offensive approach will be all the more critical.
If the Bulldogs can make a bit of progress this year, both in general terms and in the won-lost tally, the significant number of 2019-20 juniors expected to be used could be just what the doctor – and fans – ordered for 2020 to see the return of winning football for the blue and white.