CHS football Hornets wrap up preps for Aug. 9 start of practices

Season opener at Marshall less than four week away

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Prospective members of the 2021 Chillicothe High School football Hornets work on kickoff coverage techniques and assignments during a special teams instructional camp this past Tuesday at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

Barring interference from the persistent COVID-19 pandemic, four weeks from last evening will mark the beginning of the new high school football season in Missouri.

Under new head coach Chad Smith, the team’s defensive coordinator the preceding three years and an assistant coach for the program since 2014, the Chillicothe High School Hornets this week completed their summer preparatory work – strength/speed training, technical instruction, and some modified-format competitions – in anticipation of a new season which seems ripe with potential.

Although it is anticipated the cycle will be broken – at least for the immediately-foreseeable future, the 2021 Hornets project to follow the yo-yo trajectory of the past few seasons.

Just as the 2018 season saw a squad with very little significant varsity-level competitive experience struggle through the first three-fourths of the season before finding some rewarding times at the end, only to lay the foundation for a now-saltier 2019 club to have a strong season which saw it post nine victories and play for a district championship, the 2021 club is expected to reap the benefits of the even-more-daunting challenges another highly-untested group of Hornets faced last fall.

The 2020 CHS club, just as the 2018 team did, went 3-8 while confronting not only the obstacles of limited previous varsity-level and a roster thin on top-drawer seniors, but also the impact on player availability directly connected to or influenced by the pandemic at its initial height.

As reported in a recent article about the coming season, not only did the 2020 CHS squad, like many others, have to deal with the sudden non-availability of front-line personnel, due to exposure or possible exposure to the novel coronavirus, but the limitations on summertime strength training in particular has been linked anecdotally by both former head coach Tim Rulo and new field leader Smith to the number of soft-tissue and joint-related injuries which impacted multiple potential contributors.

“We had a lot of (shoulder and related injuries) last year. … That was probably the majority of our injuries,” noted Smith, one of the chief overseers of summertime training for CHS athletes from all sports, in an early-July interview with the C-T, “so we’re focusing a lot on building muscle around those joints and getting them ready for a long haul of pounding pads and things like that. Doing a lot of leg work, just making sure our legs are strong, not just for performance, but for injury prevention.

“That hurt us last year.”

Execution of a field goal attempt is practiced by prospective members of the 2021 Chillicothe 
High School football Hornets special teams instructional camp this past Tuesday at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II.

Offseason projection of the 2021 Hornets’ players roster finds returning starting experience – both full- and partial-season – at the so-called offensive “skill” positions (backfield, ends) and at all 11 defensive posts. While some shuffling of personnel to different starting positions is projected and some competition for a spot or spots a player might have been used extensively last fall figures to take place, a significant focus of summer work and instruction has been on repopulating the offensive line and recalibrating the blocking schemes for the return to the power-running, T-formation attack the program used for over a half-century prior to Rulo’s introduction of the “flexbone” during his 3-years tenure.

When healthy and available in 2020, the five interior-blocking spots largely were manned by four seniors. Only then-junior Anderson De Jesus at center of that quintet has more prep career time to utilize.

Given his years of playing experience as a lineman and more than a decade of coaching them, Smith naturally appreciates the importance of developing a strong group of linemen.

“I would agree with you 100%,” he responded when that subject was broached during the interview. “You can have as much talent as you want at other ‘skill’ positions, (but) if we’re not getting off the ball and blocking and creating ‘push’ up front,” the backs won’t get much done.

“That’s been my No. 1 goal this summer, in addition to getting the offense (installed), is making our offensive line know who to block and getting off the ball.”

Because of the general lack of game experience among projected interior linemen and the arrival in high school of some ninth graders with good size, the Hornets head coach, who will have holdover assistant Aaron McQuinn and ex-Hornet Ben Coult primarily assigned to “coaching up” the linemen, expects wide-open competition for the available spots which could both create faster development through more-intense battles for playing time and enhance depth more-quickly than might be the case if there was a larger percentage of holdovers.

The linemen group likely will see a mix of girth and mobility, leading to the possibility of returnee De Jesus manning a different post and the anticipation of a player or two who was at a different offensive position a year ago now being among the linemen.

Among the early candidates to get consideration for the all-important O-line spots besides De Jesus are seniors Christian Peniston and Cameron Fleener (a little-used reserve tight end last year), massive (6’8”, 300-pounds) junior Cooper Murphy, junior Lucas Reynolds, sophomores Ethan Davis and Brody Cairns, and freshman Bo Smith.

Of the ninth grade group with intriguing size (several entering high school already 6’2” or taller, he notes) of which his oldest son is a part, the head coach mused, “If they keep developing and getting stronger, they could be a really good offensive line” in a year or two.

Digging into the details of line development, coach Smith says understanding assignments on any given play call to where it’s nearly instinctive is critical.

“Getting our base plays to where we run them perfectly,” coach Smith describes the physical and mental task of the linemen. “We can perfect them against whatever (defensive) front (opponents) come at us with. If they come at us in a 6-2, 4-4, 5-2-monster, whatever, our guys (should) know, ‘Hey, I’ve seen this (in practice). You’re going to double(-team) here, I’m kicking this guy out, I’m taking him on my own and we’re off to the races.’

“… The more that they can play fast without having to think, if we can cut that time down between now (and season’s start), that’s a big thing.”

While “we’ve been working a lot on strength and speed development in the weight room” during the summer, dealing with the potentially-sapping effects of early-season heat is something which will be a focus during formal preseason practices over the next several week, the head coach added.

“The big thing from July to August is now we’ve got to be fast, strong, AND in shape. We’ve got to crank up the conditioning to where we’re ready to go (stamina-wise) and really hit that hard,” the shaven-headed York, Neb., native shared.

“I think that’s the biggest thing. The teams that are in shape the first couple of weeks are the ones that do good, so there’s going to be some conditioning, hitting the (blocking) sled, hitting the chute, playing low and fast when you’re tired.”

Smith said current plans are for the first week of football practices to occupy the early daylight hours – beginning at 7:30 a.m. and taking a mandatory 60-minutes break from on-field work after a couple of hours before following up that pause with some additional on-field work in late morning.

With the start of classroom instruction in the Chillicothe school district not beginning until Aug. 24, there will be scheduling flexibility (the football program shares its Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II home with the soccer Hornets) for nearly all of preseason, depending on weather conditions and the soccer program’s needs/desires.

No official announcement has been made, as yet, as to whether a preseason scrimmages jamboree will occur the weekend prior to the start of the regular season this year. None was held last year as a precaution to limit the potential for transmission of the coronavirus.