While Offense Looks Loaded, Cats Will Need Defense to Play Better in 2017
By: Nathan Bloechl — email@example.com
Humboldt, Iowa — As he enters his 18th season, Humboldt head football coach Greg Thomas is making some significant changes to his offensive philosophy.
Make no bones about it, the new up-tempo, no-huddle offense that Humboldt is looking to employ this season looks and feels good through the first weeks of practice, but if they cannot get stops on the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats may struggle to be competitive once again in a strong 3A-1 District.
While numbers have gone up — according to several on the staff — depth remains a key issue and has in part, played a big role in why Humboldt struggled defensively, at least last season.
The Cats gave up 33.1 points per game in 2016. Comparatively in 2015 Humboldt’s defense yielded 21.8 points per game, it was even stingier in 2014 allowing just over 17 points per game.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the stars of yesterday are no longer walking through the halls of Humboldt High School, now the coaching staff must mold the talent on the roster to become a formative defense in 2017.
That, in a nutshell, is the beauty of high school sports. No recruiting, no enticing, it’s all about internal development.
Here’s an in-depth preview of the 2017 Humboldt Wildcat football team.
Junior defensive tackle Justin Jones enjoyed a very strong sophomore season and looks poised to wreak havoc at either tilt tackle or playing as three-technique in Tom Johnson’s unique 4-4 scheme. Jones led Humboldt with five tackles for loss and was tied for first with 51 tackles in total.
Two of Humboldt’s top three tacklers have graduated, leaving Jones and senior linebacker Logan Moser as the leading returning tacklers.
Senior Nick Bruening is being asked to assume a much larger part in the Humboldt secondary as a senior and will have to play well in an ancillary role in a position that Johnson places much pressure on. Most plays, Bruening will play as the lone high safety in Johnson’s Cover 3 heavy scheme.
“I’m excited, yeah, I haven’t really been able to play any role on defense in the past and it’s now my time to show myself and get out there and hit somebody” Bruening said at his post-practice locker, Wednesday evening.
Bruening will join the secondary with holdovers Joey Busse (more on him in a moment) and Lucas Volf. Busse took his lumps at corner last year but is a supreme athlete and an elite competitor, he may be an interesting one on defense to watch this season.
Seniors Sawyer Savery and Timmy Larson are both seeing their first varsity action at the outside linebacker position in 2017. Coached by former Hawkeye and Minnesota Viking Tyler Nielsen, Savery and Larson will look to replace the stellar play of both Colton Monson and Devon Clark who played the hybrid strong safety, outside linebacker roles last season.
Eli Sande was a newcomer to that position last year but has battled a significant calf contusion and has yet to practice this season. His week one status is uncertain, according to him.
Other names to monitor defensively are Matt Miller, Hunter Egdorf, Jamison Heinz and Traytin Harris, who missed last season with a knee.
The question marks seem to fade rather quickly when examining the Wildcat offense in 2017. While they will undoubtedly miss the quarterbacking of now Iowa Hawkeye Drew Thomas and the receiving of Iowa Central Triton Devon Clark, the cupboard is hardly bare as far as weapons for offensive coordinator Greg Wickett to use are concerned.
Last year, Humboldt’s offensive struggles could largely be tied to their running game, or lack thereof. The Wildcats finished next to last in their district in total rushing and dead last in attempts.
Obviously, it was a Drew Thomas-centric offense, as it should have been with a player of his talent, but it remains clear that Humboldt will look to run the ball more and with better effectiveness in 2017.
Junior tailback Tyler Vitzthum, mark my words, looks poised to have an all-conference type season toting the ball this year. Vitzhum ended his season early suffering a foot injury last year, but sparkled when given the opportunity, turning his 21 carries into 124 yards — a healthy 5.9 yards per carry — and two scores. Vitzthum’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and out of the slot gives Wickett and Thomas a versatile chess piece to exploit opposing defenders.
The same can be said for sophomore wunderkind Jamison Heinz, who Thomas said “will not come off the field [offensively].” Heinz has a strong pedigree, his brother Jaxon was an-all district player, and has speed to burn. Heinz will probably see time at quarterback, running back and wide receiver and will get the ball in space as much as he can handle. It will be interesting to monitor how creative the coaching staff can be in getting him the ball.
“I’m just hoping to do whatever I can to progress the team forward.” Heinz explained. “I know we got a few new guys coming up, but we will be alright. I am just going to do as best I can wherever the [staff] puts me.”
The firepower continues on the outside with returning letter-winners Eli Sande and Lucas Volf figuring to play a very large role in the air attack. The aforementioned Sande has been battling a bit of the injury bug this season, but when healthy, has the speed to completely take the lid off opposing defenses.
Sande led the team with eight touchdown receptions last year to go along with 450 yards and an insane 19.6 yards per catch average. Volf returns to the offense after hauling in two touchdowns and over 250 yards of receiving.
The offensive line which looks stronger and more in-sync, will look to pave the way for Thomas and Wickett. It’s one thing to have weapons on the outside and out of the backfield, but every smart football mind knows games are won and lost in the trenches. Fortunately for Humboldt, they have nearly everyone intact from last year’s offensive line unit.
Junior Owen Terwilliger will look to anchor the group after starting all season last year at left tackle.
“I’ve put on about twenty pounds over the summer and I’ve been working on my footwork and just working the plays and I think [as a unit] having the experience from last year will help a lot” Terwilliger said.
“I think this line can be really, really good. We have a lot of big guys and we know what we are doing. I think this line can be pretty good” he explained further.
One interesting nugget from fall camp so far has been the experiment of playing Justin Jones at right tackle. The question is how long will Humboldt’s coaching staff want to expose Jones as a blocker rather than resting him to expose the other team’s offensive line as a defensive tackle. It will be an interesting dichotomy to follow in the upcoming weeks.
Incumbent junior quarterback Joey Busse seemed to squelch any talks over a quarterback battle as he looks in command of the Wildcat offense. Busse inherits an offense with an embarrassment of riches with full autonomy on running plays and to some extent passing plays as well. Humboldt’s no-huddle spread offense caters a lot to Busse’s strengths as a passer. It seems as if Humboldt’s offensive coaches will accentuate moving Busse out of the pocket where he can attack the perimeter and put as much stress on the defense as possible.
There was some grumblings of a three-way battle between Busse, Heinz and Jake Thurm, but it seems now Busse has the lead by a good margin.
Don’t be surprised, however, if Heinz plays quarterback in spots as a Wildcat Quarterback, similar to the early Florida Gator days of Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. Heinz can run and if it’s by direct snap in the shotgun, Humboldt will exploit that as well. Jake Thurm has spun the ball well in camp but is probably a year-out as far as the varsity lights are concerned, but no doubt is his future bright.
This team offensively has all the tools to put up some gaudy numbers in 3A-1 if they execute their scheme to their max potential. It will be up to veteran offensive coaching staff to make sure that they are placing players in their best role to succeed as a unit. Are there a lot of mouths to feed on this offense? Sure. But as an offensive coordinator, Greg Wickett has to be drooling when watching opposing films tape on Sunday or Monday and coming up with a scheme each week tailored to best attack their opponent. There are so many weapons for Humboldt bludgeon their opponent with.
Defensively, Humboldt is young, but there are pieces at each level of the defense who are capable of making plays. If Humboldt can be average on defense this season, this team certainly has the ability to win five to six games and finish in the top half of their district. How they handle their players who go both ways will be a strong indicator of their defensive success in 2017.
LT: Owen Terwilliger
LG: Jacob Volf
C: Owen Newton
RG: Hunter Egdorf
RT: Justin Jones
FB: Traytin Harris
RB: Tyler Vitzthum
X: Eli Sande Ca
Z: Lucas Volf
TE: Matt Miller
H: Jamison Heinz
QB: Joey Busse
LDE: Jack Arndt
TT: Jacob Volf
DT: Justin Jones
RDE: Owen Newton
MLB: Traytin Harris
MLB: Logan Moser
OLB/SS: Sawyer Savery
OLB: Timmy Larson
CB: Lucas Volf
CB: Joey Busse
FS: Nick Bruening
PK: Lucas Volf
Holder: Jacob Thurm
LS: Owen Newton
Photo Courtesy: (Instagram: Lucas Volf, @volf21)