The Rolla football team is coming off one of the most successful seasons of the history of their program. The Bulldogs were 7-6 last year, sweeping their District, before falling in their first State Quarterfinal appearance in over two decades. Head coach Jon Franks thinks that last year's success paved the way for another great year in 2018.
"I think you've seen more kids become hungry from that opportunity we had last year. It started the year before, we got to the District Championship game. Last year, we were hungry to get their again, understood what was going on," said coach Franks. "It will be the same thing this year, this team will be hungry and they will understand how to be successful in situations.
"These guys have not reached a culmination, in their mind, that we're as good as we can be, we're done," continued Franks.
While a lot of players will return from last year's team, the Bulldogs saw a few of their biggest pieces graduate, most notably their All-State quarterback Josh Pritchett. Filling those big shoes will be Jack Hounsom, who physically has a lot of the same attributes. Hounsom is a long, slender quarterback with a solid arm and some ability to slip out of the pocket and coach Franks is confident in his starting quarterback.
"Jack right now is our starting quarterback, there's really not a controversy. He's going to be the guy and he's had a great summer," said Franks. "Jack has always been a quarterback and he's always been with coach Shockley, who runs our offense. Jack understands the system, knows what he can do and he understands from our program, from our coaches and our community that we just expect Jack to be Jack. He doesn't have to be anybody else.
"Jack throws the ball really well, handles pressure well and actually runs the ball really well," continued the Rolla head coach. "We're pretty excited for him."
The new starting quarterback should have a wealth of weapons to distribute the ball to. Senior swiss army knife Blaize Klossner returns this season and will likely have snaps at running back, receiver and even a little quarterback this year. The senior was a second team All-State player last year, leading the team in receiving with 1,196 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was second on the team in rushing behind Pritchett with 424 yards and five scores, while also tossing three touchdown passes. He leads an offense that should also see big contributions from players like RJ Alfred, Elijah Young and Trey Quick, all of which will play in utility roles. Some other players that will compete for snaps include Jaden Tate, Brady Yarger, Issac Hunter and Muluken Pritchett, as well as David Wiles at tight end.
"With coach Shockley's system, I would hate to defend us all the time, because really they're just football players. You're looking at Blaize, Elijah Young, Trey Quick, RJ Alfred, a lot of guys. We've got a couple of sophomores in the hunt," said coach Franks. "A lot of guys will be receivers, they'll carry the ball, they'll come into the backfield. Pretty much all of them are going to run routes and they're going to carry the ball."
While Rolla looks to have a wealth of options at their skill positions, that doesn't help a team much if they don't have some offensive linemen that can open up holes and keep Hounsom on his feet. The Bulldogs will have some fresh faces on the line after losing some key pieces to graduation, but several of those players have had a taste of varsity action and have put in some great work this summer.
"We're pretty fortunate right now that we've pretty much got seven guys, eight counting David Wiles as our tight end. Noah Crouch started last year, Darius Facen had a lot of playing time, Kelly Brown is a senior who has played quite a bit, Eric Henson's looking to play there and Ethan Gould. Kaberon Burgess started a lot on defense and offense, we actually moved him to the offensive side, Brandon Kirchner is a senior who's had a really good summer," said coach Franks. "We're pretty fortunate right now. Coach McElroy and coach Shockley, they've got seven guys, we've gone with several different lineups.
"We were very happy when we left camp," continued Franks. "That offensive line did a very nice job. Very physical and did a very nice job of putting those guys in a position to use their abilities."
As you move to the defensive side of the ball, most of those offensive linemen will serve as reserves as coach Franks will try to have a two person platoon at every position. Rolla had several two way players last season, but the Bulldogs are looking to get to the point where they have fresh starters on both sides of the ball.
"Take Kaberon Burgess. Kaberon is a good defensive football player, but we do not wanna use him unless we absolutely need to, because to play at the level that we're trying to move this program to, you just can't work that hard that long," said coach Franks. "When you go against teams that two-platoon and you're a two-way player, eventually it beats you."
Defensively, Rolla has some great pieces back in their front seven. On the line, Justin Briggs returns and looks to play a big role. He played nose guard last year, but will move around the defensive front quite a bit this season.
"Chris Bench had a fabulous off-season playing our nose (guard). I know Josh Morris is really complimenting (Bench and Briggs) at camp," said coach Franks. "Defensive ends, Elijah Cunningham is one of them. Dakota Chiles is coming back this year, he had an illness that kept him away last year."
Behind those linemen, you have experienced linebackers in Josh Morris and Colton Franks. Those two will be huge leaders for the Bulldog defense.
"You can't say enough about Josh. Going into his third year, two years of over 100 tackles, just kind of our quarterback right now on the defense. A big, physical, smart, great kid. He's done a really nice job," said coach Franks. "You add him and Colton (Franks) together and you get close to 300 tackles, so I'm very excited about those two.
"Bryce O'Connor, which most everybody knows Bryce as a running back, we've moved him to our Will linebacker. He's had a very good summer," said the Rolla head coach. "He'll tell you, it took a little while to adjust, but that football sense is there, the kid runs and competes, so we're excited for Bryce to get in there."
In the secondary, Rolla will have some exciting pieces. At one cornerback position, they have a returning second team All-Stater in Ahmed Boubacar. Blayne Yarger returns after missing time with an arm injury, He started as a sophomore and will take the starting safety job back as a senior. Rolla will also have some new players step in so some of last year's starters like Klossner and Young can take some time off and focus on offense.
"We're very excited secondary-wise. We get Blayne Yarger back. He had Tommy John surgery last year, so he had to miss his junior year. He was a starter as a sophomore and he's come back with a vengeance. He's playing really well," said coach Franks. Dawitt Pritchett has had a really nice summer at corner and that gives us some opportunity to rest Blaize. Muluken Pritchett plays some safety for us, he really likes to hit. Elijah Young plays some defense and of course Boubacar. RJ might be our best cover guy, but right now he's offense playing receiver. That group of guys will all play a lot week one."
On both sides of the ball, coach Franks thinks he has several players that will really have a chance to shine and show off their talents. While some of those guys might not have been the big guns last year, there will be some new stars in 2018.
"RJ at receiver, he's had a nice year, really committed in the weight room and put on some size. He's done a good job of blocking, always catches the ball well, he can run past you, runs routes well," said coach Franks. "Any of those linemen, I think, offensive and defense have an opportunity to really stand out."
Rolla will also have a key player returning on special teams in Jarret Gabriele. While he spends most of his fall season being the star forward on the soccer team, Gabriele also handles kicking duties for the football team. The soccer schedule looks like it will line up a little better this year, so Gabriele should be able to attend most of the games. In his absence, Muluken Pritchett has experience kicking as well.
While the Bulldogs lost several players to graduation, coach Franks still considers their biggest strength to be their experience.
"These guys have played a lot of football. They played 12 games the year before last, 13 games last year, so they've got a lot of football in," said the Rolla head coach. "Those guys that we list, there's very few of those guys that haven't been on the field a whole lot."
Leading that experienced charge will be a group of four captains voted on by the seniors and coaches. Those captains will be Klossner, Quick, Boubacar and Morris. While the Bulldogs can technically only have four captains, they'll have many more players in leadership roles, as every single senior had at least two votes as they decided on captains. Coach Franks takes a lot of pride knowing that his players want to step up and lead this program.
"I absolutely hate when they talk about me and our coaches. Yes, we're involved in the program, but it's (the players') program and these guys really care about the program and they've done a really nice job," said coach Franks. "These guys are doing a good job of moving the program forward."
While coach Franks likes where his team is at, he knows they still have a lot of work to put in. In his eyes the number one focus as they gear up for the season is perfecting the details.
"The main thing is fundamentals and technique," said the Rolla head coach. "When we practice, we always talk about putting in good and getting out good. When you practice correctly, you practice fast, you do technique right, because both teams are going to hit that spot somewhere in the third quarter where it's really got and I'm really tired and when you hit that spot muscle memory is going to have to take over. If you've not done things right, you're going to falter and if you've done things right, you're going to start taking over your opponent."
After the success the Bulldogs found last year, their goals remain high. Right now, coach Franks sees West Plains as the number one team in their way on their way to an Ozark Conference title. For the postseason, Rolla will be in Class 4 District 5. That District includes Borgia, who Rolla beat in the District Championship last season. Camdenton, Helias, Pacific, Sullivan, Washington and Union will also join the District.
"Obviously in the conference right now, West Plains is probably picked to be the best. They had a great year last year and a lot of returning players. Obviously in our game, that was our one meltdown with turnovers and didn't play very well," said coach Franks. "Lebanon is a program that's always going to be vying for a conference championship, Camdenton is a perennial power. Hopefully our program makes the step where we're not just a tough opponent, but we're an opponent who can win this conference year in and year out."