Bulldogs tangle with Ozark Conference favorite at Lions Memorial Field.

Attempting to bounce back from a one-win season while breaking in a new offense, all the Rolla High School football team has to do in its season-opener tonight is tangle with this year’s favorite to win the Ozark Conference championship.

The Bulldogs will test their new spread offensive formation against the league foe who perhaps runs it the best in the Lebanon Yellowjackets. Tonight’s kickoff at Lions Memorial Field has been backed up 30 minutes due to the heat and is now slated for 7:30 p.m.

After a 1-9 2013 campaign RHS head coach Willie Howard felt the Bulldog personnel was right for the switch from the option game to the spread this fall. And the past two months the squad has been installing and attempting to perfect for the start of the season. That time is now, and tonight the Bulldogs will see exactly where they are.

“We haven’t had any injuries and that has helped us in our learning curve,” Howard said. “It’s been kind of a constricted schedule, moving up the first practice. Fortunately we had 25 days in the summer to work and that helped speed things up.”

Howard knows it’s not a finished product, and there will be some bumps in the road RHS will have to overcome while learning the spread.

“We’ve been preaching a lot since the jamboree not to get too high or too low,” Howard said. “We’ve got to keep playing the next down. As long as we keep that mindset, we’ll be okay.”

The Jackets are coming off a 6-4 campaign in 2013, finishing tied for third in the Ozark Conference race. In this year’s Ozark Conference preseason coaches poll - conducted by the Daily News - Lebanon was the coaches’ choice to win the OC title, with Camdenton finishing second and Springfield Parkview third. Rolla was eighth in the poll.
Lebanon has nine offensive and five defensive starters back from last season, when the squad averaged 26.2 points per game and averaged 313 offensive yards (177 rushing, 136 through the air).

Leading the charge for the Jackets is returners at quarterback (junior Luke Winfrey) and running back (senior Elza Evans).

Evans led the Ozark Conference in rushing last season with 1,497 yards while scoring 19 touchdowns. Winfrey gave the Jacket spread balance by passing for 1,427 yards.

“They’re really good,” Howard said of Lebanon. “They’re experienced at some spots, inexperienced at others. I picked them to be the (OC) front-runner. They execute well, don’t turn the ball over much and are physical on defense.

“Evans is a really good running back - he’s a lot like (Rolla’s) Andy Satulla in build and running style. We’ve got to get a lot of helmets on the ball and hang on to him. (Winfrey) throws the ball well and does a good job finding the open receiver and putting the ball where it needs to be.”

“I think our preseason has gone well,” said Will Christian, entering his 10th season as Lebanon head coach. “We have lots to get better on. But the kids are working really hard.”

The Jacket defense is not as big as typical Lebanon defensive fronts have been in the past. Lebanon allowed an average of nearly three touchdowns per game last season.

“I think they are going to end up being a typical Lebanon defense,” Howard said. “They’re starting some young guys who are very physical.”

In the past Lebanon has used a 3-3 stack defensive formation but, “They showed a 4-4 look in their jamboree,” Howard said. “We will also be ready for a 3-3.”

Rolla has eight offensive and seven defensive starters back. Leading the charge on both sides of the ball is Satulla, a senior running back-outside linebacker.

Satulla rushed for 1,345 yards and 10 touchdowns last season while catching 18 passes to pace the Bulldog attack.

Junior quarterback Kyle Morris, who passed for 804 yards, figures to air it out more in the new offense. Senior Caleb Copeland, who hadn’t played football the previous two years, gives Morris a 6-4 target downfield. Howard also likes the progression of several other RHS receivers, including junior Keegan Chrisco and senior Blaine Hrovat.

“I think Rolla looks really good,” Christian said. “I’m very impressed with how hard they play; the athleticism of their offense.

“I think Satulla is an outstanding running back and outside linebacker and the Morris kid has a really quick release and is making good decisions. They are a good team and will be a handful.”