New head coach has veteran football Hornets squad

Chad Smith inherits more than a dozen returning starters in debut season

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
The 2021 Chillicothe High School football Hornets, with new head coach Chad Smith, are slated to play their first game at Marshall this Friday.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

When the 2021 Chillicothe High School football Hornets debut this Friday evening at Marshall (7 p.m. at MHS’ Cecil Naylor Field), for only the third time in 58 years, it will mark the CHS debut as head coach of their sideline leader.

However, as was the case in 1998 when Phil Willard took the reins from now-late national Hall of Famer Bob Fairchild, the “new” label will be highly relative.

A Hornets squad deep in returning starters and experience, with some proven productivity, and integrating some younger players – including two projected freshmen starters, will be guided for the first time by Chad Smith, assistant coach and defensive coordinator under resigned Tim Rulo (now head coach of nearly-new Russellville HS program) the past three years.

Smith, Chillicothe’s wrestling head coach since 2014-15, has been on the varsity football staff as a linemen coach throughout his tenure at CHS and, before that, had about a half-dozen years on the staff of Fairchild’s son David at Hamilton’s Penney High School. During that stretch, Hamilton won three state championships in smaller-school classifications.

Also having spent time as an assistant at Carrollton prior to being at Hamilton, Smith is deeply steeped in the “Fairchild” brand of football which Willard also employed during his two decades in charge of his alma mater’s program. It’s no surprise, then, that the York, Neb., native, by and large, will utilize the same basic offensive and defensive approaches – a heavily-run-first attack that looks to control the ball and clock and a 5-2 base defense.

“Learned a lot from (Dave Fairchild) and basically got a lot of the ideas of what I want to do as the head coach here – the groundwork of the same offense and a lot of the defensive stuff. When I came to Chillicothe, working with Phil, a very similar offense that kind of stems back to the early days when Bob was coaching,” Smith confirmed in a summer interview with the C-T.

At least conceptually, the new coach did indicate he might try to exploit opposing defenses’ attempting to crowd the line of scrimmage by throwing a bit more frequently.

“The big thing is to run the ball, be effective at that, let the defense come up a little bit – tighten up against the run, and we look for a lot of play-action passing,” Smith shared. “I plan on passing quite a bit out of those types of situations when they’re not expecting it.”

As for defense, “We’re going to do a lot of the same things,” the head coach confirmed in midsummer. Assistants Aaron McQuinn and Roman Cranmer are sharing coordinating duties for the defense.

“We are a lot better-suited (to execute last year’s aggressive approach), coach Smith elaborated. “Everybody’s a lot bigger and stronger and faster this year.”

After allowing numerous big plays and six touchdowns in 36 plays during last weekend’s “jamboree” scrimmages against Centralia and Hallsville, the new head coach reacted, “We did a lot of good things.

“We played a lot of different guys in there and it helped us see who will be in the (line) rotation. Secondary-wise (where Hallsville hurt them several times), we have to make sure we get over the top and nobody gets behind us.

“This ‘jamboree’ helped us sort through which coverages we are better at.”

The first Hornets team Smith will lead is far more promising, in terms of experience and potential for scoreboard success, than was the group Rulo inherited for the 2018 campaign.

After an excellent 2017 season in which an almost-senior-exclusive lineup had state-title dreams which were stunningly derailed by nemesis Maryville in the district finals after CHS had blanked Maryville early in the season and jumped ahead 12-0 in the playoff game, Rulo had less than a handful of experienced starters or reserves for his first squad and lost the best of that tiny group to an essentially-season-ending injury in the first game of the season. Not surprisingly, even with a strong finish, a 4-7 season resulted.

Smith and his overhauled coaching staff, conversely, have 13 players with extensive full- or part-time starting experience – a number of them 2-way starters, as well as others who saw extensive action as backups in 2020, to mold into what is expected to be a winning club this fall.

“We expect to win,” Smith stated in the July interview. “That’s kind of our mantra for the year.”

The 2021 Chillicothe High School football Hornets' offense set to snap the ball vs. Centralia during last Friday's "jamboree" scrimmages at Moberly. The development of a mostly-rebuilt offensive line will be a huge factor in how productive the offense, which has many experienced backs and end returning, will be.

Personnel-wise, most of the top producers from the 3-8 2020 campaign are back.

That includes the top six in tackles plus the player (Brock Ward) who might well have led in that stat were it not for a nearly-season-long injury), a 1,300-yards-plus ballcarrier in senior Damarcus Kelow, senior starting quarterback Gage Leamer and senior No. 1 receiver Braxten Johnson, and defenders who accounted for 13 of last year’s meager 15 takeaways.

The one gap in that breadth of experience is among offensive linemen. Only center Anderson DeJesus, a senior who did not play in last weekend’s “jamboree” scrimmages, is back from the regular starting five on the offensive interior.

The reconstruction initially will feature an unlikely blend of veterans and fresh faces, none of whom played a down last year at their anticipated 2021 spots.

Barring late-arising health issues, seniors Cameron Fleener and Christian Peniston will take over at the tackle spots with sophomore Ethan Davis and freshman Bo Smith – the head coach’s son – as the guards.

“We have to get off the ball,” coach Smith said in July of what he’d been seeking from new linemen. “We want to be very physical at the point of attack.”

DeJesus is, by far, the smallest of the starting quintet at 6’, 190. A backup tight end on offense last year, the 6’5”, 230-pounds Fleener is envisioned as a valuable asset on counter plays – one of the staples of the Fairchild offensive approach, due to his mobility.

“When you have a guy like Cameron who can run, you can do more traps and pulls and a lot of misdirection (runs) where we can use Damarcus (as a decoy) where everybody thinks it’s going the way he goes and we have Bo and Cameron pulling back to the other side and (a halfback) is running (the ball) the other way,” coach Smith pointed out during the summer chat.

The other three starters tip the scales at between 265 (B. Smith) and 299 pounds (Peniston).

The early-season depth behind them includes Ryder Rempel, Dylan Ulmer, Laik Graham, Lucas Reynolds, Carson Rhodes, and gigantic (6’7”, 335, jr.) Cooper Murphy, all underclassmen of varying sizes. Murphy and Reynolds are ticketed to start on the defensive line.

On into the future, coach Smith also sees a freshman batch already with good size and potential as “O” linemen.

“We have to continue to build depth at all the OL/DL positions,” the coach affirms as preparations for the season opener began in earnest last weekend.

After watching and reviewing last weekend’s scrimmages, coach Smith said of the blocking outlook, “I feel like we are getting better all the time at picking up the right player in our blocking scheme. Our line is getting off the ball faster each week. I would like us to keep improving each week as well as our pad level. We also can do a better job on our angles picking up linebackers playside. Our running backs are doing a much better job of blocking on ‘kickouts’ and leads.”

Depth should be abundant at the end and back positions on offense. Hopefully, quality production will develop from that.

If he remains healthy and avoids “fumble-itis,” the 215-pounder Kelow should be very effective again as the sledgehammer from the fullback’s post after averaging over five yards a carry with 13 touchdowns last season.

Powerful, but also capable of breaking a long run, he might well have exceeded 1,500 rushing yards as a junior, if not for the separated shoulder he sustained part-way through the regular-season finale that also kept him out of the first part of the next week’s playoffs opener. By not playing full-time on defense, where he was a starter at either linebacker, end or tackle last year, he could be even more of a rushing force in ’21.

Look for a bevy of halfbacks to be utilized with senior Braxten Johnson, converted from end, and junior Brock Miller the initial starters, but junior Bryce Dominique and sophomores Javon Kille and Cayden Larson spelling them.

Additionally, junior Cayden Potter (6’3”, 215) will be used extensively at either fullback or halfback after sitting out the opening game with a wrist/hand injury and freshman Silas Midgyett (5’10”, 200) could see some varsity action while likely being the feature back on the junior-varsity scene.

Also, coach Smith said the 6’, 200-pounds Ward could, in formations involving a split end, could relocate to running back to be either a ballcarrier or pass target. Without altering personnel and tipping off opposing defenses, Johnson, who averaged nearly 16 yards on 22 receptions at end last year and has fine route-running and ball-catching skills, could easily line up as a split end and Ward be in the backfield, able to serve as a ballcarrier, pass blocker, or flaring receiver. Miller also is considered by the coaches as a very good receiver, either going downfield with his deceptive speed or on swing/flare routes, Dominique could factor in as a receiver, too, perhaps especially on the patented deep post pattern from either the wing or slot against opponents overloading “the box” with eight or nine players.

The other starting tight end besides Ward initially will be junior Corbin Rodenberg (5’9”, 185), who is a feisty competitor, but also with a good set of hands, as demonstrated as a linebacker last year and a TD catch in last week’s “jamboree.”

Additionally, depending on the situation and play call, junior Griff Bonderer (6’3”, 175) has enough size to handle a tight end’s blocking chores, but also the athleticism and greater speed to split out and be a tall downfield target. While a bit smaller (6’2”, 165), junior Max Wagers (11 receptions in 2020 despite missing several games with injury) provides similar potential to Bonderer.

If coach Smith follows through on his intention to try to use the pass a bit more to keep defenses from crowding inside the hashmarks to limit running room, it appears capable targets are plentiful.

Charged first with getting the ball to them when not handing off or making short, quick pitchout tosses to ballcarriers will be Ga. Leamer.

He won’t have to take the licks he did in the option-based flexbone last year, when he was second on the team in carries (including quarterback sacks) with 113. Most of his carries this season – probably less than one-fourth of his 2020 total – figure to be on quarterback sneaks.

While the inexperienced ’20 team averaged less than 10 passes a game out of the flexbone, Ga. Leamer did find his target about 47 percent of the time for average gains of 15 yards. However, only two of his 97 throws put CHS points on the scoreboard and eight times he was picked off, a ratio he’ll need to balance better.

Chances are, Bonderer will get playing time under center to prep him for his senior year and also to prep him some, in case of injury or illness for Ga. Leamer. Bonderer’s only passing attempt a year ago was while lined up as a running back.

On defense, according to coach Smith, while interior linemen figure to be cycled in and out, depending on down and distance, as well as possible fatigue, the bulky C. Murphy and C. Rhodes (270 pounds) are due to start the opener, along with the quicker Reynolds (5’8”, 180, jr.). Also figuring in at the trenches spots are Peniston, who had some very effective moments as a starting nose tackle last year, Ryder Rempel (5’11”, 286, jr.), Dilyn Ulmer (6’3”, 257, soph.), and frosh B. Smith.

At the ends of the line initially will be the tall Fleener and freshman Midgyett with Potter likely a candidate to step in for the freshman, if need arises, once his injury is declared healed – possibly next week. Additional depth comes from a trio of relatively-lanky players – Isaiah Sprong (6’4”, 200, jr.), Shane Murphy (6’2”, 190, jr.) and James Mathew (6’4”, 170, soph.).

At linebacker, Ward will be joined by Rodenberg in potentially a very fine tandem. Kelow or Miller could spell them some.

In the secondary, the cornerbacks are due to be Bonderer and Dominique with Johnson and M. Wagers the safeties. Johnson led last year’s Hornets with 68 total tackles (team-most 38 solo) and three interceptions. M. Wagers also has demonstrated a nose for the ball and good hands on pass defense.

Supplying depth at the back end likely will always-eager Ruger Cox (5’10”, 150, jr.), Ga. Leamer, Miller and Kille (5’7”, 145, soph.).

What seems to be better overall speed on the defensive unit could translate to more takeaways, always a key factor in success.

“We’re definitely a lot more versatile athletically this year,” coach Smith said during the summer. “A lot of kids have really developed, speed-wise. … I’ve been very impressed with our overall speed.”

Chillicothe’s special terms were rather mundane last year with only one kickoff return longer than 25 yards, only one punt return all season, and lackluster placekicking (12 of 18 on point-after kicks and a miss on the lone field-goal attempt) and kicking off. Bonderer, aided by a couple of long-bouncing, late-season kicks, ended up averaging a decent 32.4 yards per punt.

Bonderer will retain the punter’s spot, but incumbent Mathew could be challenged by M. Wagers on some or all of the placekicking fronts.

In terms of returns, Dominique will be used to field both kickoffs and punts, perhaps in tandem with Kille on kickoffs.

Asked, in the aftermath of the “jamboree,” what most pleased him from it and what was his greatest concern about needing to improve by game one, the new CHS head coach said, “I thought we executed well. We did not want to show much of our (overall) offense. I think we were a lot better than (during an intrasquad) scrimmage at getting off the ball, picking up blocks, and finishing runs with authority.

“We have to continue to do this each week.”